Pope Francis apologizes to Canadian Indigenous delegates for ‘deplorable’ abuses at residential schools

Indigenous delegates reflect on Pope Francis’s apology for the conduct of some members of the Roman Catholic Church in Canada’s residential school system and the weeklong visit to the Vatican. 

Pope Francis has apologized for the conduct of some members of the Roman Catholic Church in Canada’s residential school system, following a week of talks with First Nations, Inuit and Métis delegations.

The delegates had gathered for a final and public audience with the Pope at the Vatican on Friday as Francis spoke of feeling “sorrow and shame” for the conduct of those who ran the schools.

“I also feel shame … sorrow and shame for the role that a number of Catholics, particularly those with educational responsibilities, have had in all these things that wounded you, and the abuses you suffered and the lack of respect shown for your identity, your culture and even your spiritual values,” he said.

“For the deplorable conduct of these members of the Catholic Church, I ask for God’s forgiveness and I want to say to you with all my heart, I am very sorry. And I join my brothers, the Canadian bishops, in asking your pardon.”

WATCH | Pope Francis apologizes to Indigenous delegates for ‘deplorable’ abuses at residential schools

Saying he was ‘deeply grieved by the stories of the suffering’ experienced in residential schools, Pope Francis apologized to Indigenous delegates at a public audience at the Vatican. 13:41

Francis also said he hoped to visit Canada “in the days” around the church’s Feast of St. Anne, which falls on July 26.

Dene National Chief Gerald Antoine, who led one of the delegations, said Indigenous leaders should be part of the planning of such a visit.

“Today is a day that we’ve been waiting for and certainly one that will be uplifted in our history,” he said after the meeting.

“It’s a historical first step. However, only a first step. The next step is for the Holy Father to apologize to our family at their home. We seek to hear his words. They also seek the words of apology at home.”

The apology comes at the end of a week of private separate meetings between the First Nations, Inuit and Métis delegations and the Pope about the Roman Catholic Church’s role in Canada’s residential school system.

The Inuit delegation had also been pushing for the church to intervene in the case of fugitive Oblate priest wanted in Canada for sex crimes, and the First Nation delegates also urged the Pope to revoke centuries-old papal decrees used to justify the seizure of Indigenous land in the Americas by colonial powers.

Colleen Jacob, former chief of Xaxli’p First Nation in British Columbia, leads First Nations delegates in song outside St. Peter’s Basilica. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

More than 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend residential schools between the 1880s and 1996, and more than 60 per cent of the schools were run by the Catholic Church.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission — which from 2008 to 2015 examined the record of Canada’s residential school system — called for a papal apology as part of its 94 calls to action. The commission also urged all religious and faith groups to repudiate concepts used to justify European sovereignty over Indigenous lands and people.

Prayers were offered at the Vatican on Friday before Pope Francis spoke at his final meeting with First Nations, Inuit and Métis delegates, when the pontiff apologized for the conduct of some members of the Roman Catholic Church in running Canada’s residential school system, (Delegate/Supplied)

Colleen Jacob, the former chief of Xaxli’p First Nation in British Columbia, wrote about her experience attending residential school in a letter to the Pope delivered during his private meeting this week with Assembly of First Nations delegates.

Jacob said she can still remember vividly the bus picking her up for the first time in 1974, when she was just seven years old.

She said she was dropped off and separated from her big brother.

“It was a big shock to me because back home I used to follow him everywhere,” Jacob said. “I would cry when he wouldn’t take me.”

Related stories from around the North: 

Canada: Canadian Inuit leader says Vatican Museums open to repatriating Indigenous artifacts, CBC News

Finland: Sami Parliament in Finland agrees more time needed for Truth and Reconciliation Commission preparation, Eye on the Arctic

Norway: Sami education conference looks at how to better serve Indigenous children, Eye on the Arctic

Sweden: Sami in Sweden start work on structure of Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Eye on the Arctic

United States: Alaska reckons with missing data on murdered Indigenous women, Alaska Public Media

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