Pope Francis apologises for abuse at church schools in Canada

Pontiff on ‘pilgrimage of penance’ in country over church’s treatment of indigenous

Pope Francis has expressed “my sorrow” for the legacy of abuse at Canada’s residential schools, asking survivors of the church-run system for forgiveness as he tours the country on a “pilgrimage of penance”.

The pontiff’s widely anticipated apology came during a Monday morning visit to the community of Maskwacis, Alberta — the first formal event of his one-week tour after landing in the western province on Sunday.

“I am sorry. I ask for forgiveness, in particular, for the ways in which many members of the church and of religious communities co-operated, not least through their indifference, in projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation promoted by the governments of that time, which culminated in the system of residential schools,” said the pope. He told nearly 2,000 survivors of the residential school system of his “indignation” and “shame” over the “painful” memory of the treatment of indigenous children.

He and the survivors were gathered at the powwow arbour — a space for First Nations community gatherings and celebrations.


Prime minister Justin Trudeau, governor general Mary Simon, Assembly of First Nations national chief Roseanne Archibald and several federal politicians were also in attendance.

The event at Maskwacis, Cree for “bear hills”, is the site of Ermineskin, Samson, Louis Bull and Montana nations — and the only First Nations community the pope will visit on his week-long tour of Canada.

The location also marks the site of the former Ermineskin Residential school, one of the largest of its kind in the country that ran from 1916 to 1975.

Over more than a century, at least 150,000 indigenous children were taken from their families and forced to attend schools such as Ermineskin, run by the Catholic Church.

Survivors of the school have testified about physical abuse as well as punishment for speaking their mother tongue. At least 15 children died while attending the school, including three of tuberculosis in 1903. A government survey in the 1920s found that half of the pupils at the school were infected with tuberculosis, according to the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre.

The school has largely been torn down and five teepees now stand at the site, representing the four nations in the area — Ermineskin, Samson, Louis Bull and Montan — with the fifth serving as a symbol of the entrance to where the school once stood.

In 2008, the federal government formally apologised for establishing and running the schools, paying billions in compensation to survivors.

Vatican resistance

While both the Protestant and Anglican churches ran schools, the majority — nearly 130 — were operated by the Catholic Church. Yet the Vatican for years had repeatedly resisted calls for a papal apology.

Before visiting the site of the school, the pope toured the Ermineskin cemetery, where many who attended the school are now buried.

“I do know when two people have apologised we feel better,” said Chief Greg Desjarlais of the Frog Lake First Nation in northern Alberta, and a residential school survivor, on Sunday. “But our people have been through a lot ... Our people have been traumatised. Some of them didn’t make it home. Now I hope the world will see why our people are so hurt.”

Ahead of the pope’s remarks, a banner bearing the names of more than 4,000 children who died in the residential school system was unfurled on the arbour grounds.

The pope’s apology in the presence of indigenous leaders and residential school survivors, given on the traditional territory of those affected by the legacy of the schools, marks the second time he has looked to atone for the church’s past actions.

In April, during a meeting with indigenous delegates at the Vatican, the pope apologised to survivors, formally expressing contrition for “deplorable” past abuses.

Later on Monday afternoon, the pontiff is expected to visit a Catholic parish in the provincial capital of Edmonton. The church incorporates indigenous language and customs in liturgy. In the coming days, the pope will travel to Quebec City and Iqaluit, the capital of the northern Nunavut territory. — Guardian