He addressed his comments to several thousand residential school survivors in a grassy field surrounded by a small dais on the first full day of a journey aimed at penance for one of Canada’s greatest tragedies: a school system that forcibly separated indigenous children from their parents and tried to assimilate them into Euro-Christian society – often brutally. Students were forbidden to speak their native language or practice traditional customs; many were physically or sexually assaulted.
What to Know About Canada’s Indian Residential Schools and the Unmarked Graves Found Nearby
“It is painful to think of how the firm ground of values, language and culture that constituted your peoples’ authentic identity has been eroded, and you have continued to pay the price,” said Francois.
His use of the word “sorry” twice drew cheers and applause. He briefly donned a feathered headdress given to him after his remarks, drawing louder cheers.
Francis’ visit is a response to years of indigenous demands for recognition from the Catholic Church, which ran the majority of schools in the 19th and 20th centuries. Although Francis wavered for much of his pontificate, he faced increasing pressure after Indigenous groups said last year that ground-penetrating radar had located hundreds of unmarked graves nearby. old boarding schools.
The trip represents a major departure from the norms of papal overseas travel, in which celebration and evangelism tend to be central goals. Francis, 85, opted for only a modest welcome ceremony when he landed in Edmonton on Sunday, where he was greeted with Indigenous music. He chose not to comment until arriving Monday morning in Maskwacis, an Indigenous community surrounded by yellow canola fields on the Alberta prairie between Edmonton and Calgary. The speaker who introduced him said, “Welcome to our country.”
Earlier, Francis – in his wheelchair – prayed on the grounds of the cemetery believed to hold the remains of boarding school students, and he visited the former site of the Ermineskin boarding school, which opened in 1895 and was operated by Roman Catholic missionaries for much of its existence. . It was placed under federal control in 1969; the dormitories were closed in 1970.
Francis hosted an indigenous delegation at the Vatican in April and then apologized for the “deplorable conduct” of some “members” of the Catholic Church in the residential school system.
Some survivors said at the time that those words didn’t go far enough. They hoped that Francis would address the complicity of the Catholic Church. But Francis’s remarks on Monday hit about the same note as previous apologies, in that he lamented the actions of individuals in the church – not the church itself.
“I ask forgiveness, in particular, for the way in which many members of the Church and religious communities cooperated, notably through their indifference, in the projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation promoted by the governments of the time. , which resulted in the residential school system,” Francis said.
Pope Francis visits Canada with an apology on the agenda
When the Presbyterian Church of Canada issued its apology in 1994, the wrongdoing was blamed on the church itself. “We confess that the Presbyterian Church in Canada is supposed to know better than Indigenous people what is necessary for life,” the church said in a statement at the time.
Helen Charlie, 63, a residential school survivor who flew in for the event from Whitehorse, Yukon, said while the Pope did not apologize for the wider church, he did apologize in personal terms which she found moving. “It was like he was responsible for everything,” she said after the event, as she made her way to the stage, hoping to meet him. She said she wanted to touch the Pope’s shirt, take him close and ask him to pray for the many people she knew who died young – including from alcoholism which she attributed in part to the residential school experiences.
“I cried while he was talking,” Charlie said.
Many in the crowd wore orange shirts with the phrase “Every Child Matters,” which are also worn to mark the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation and to remember the legacy of residential schools. People carried a 164-foot red memorial cloth with the names of the 4,120 Indigenous children who died or disappeared in residential schools.
For Indigenous listeners, the event sparked a reflection that quickly moved from apologies to concerns about Indigenous relations with the Canadian government and what might happen next – 50 years from now, 500 years from now. It made many of their fragile communities think, about drug addiction and suicide and other aspects of trauma, and how many people who desperately needed an apology never got to hear one.
“About 80% of my classmates are in their graves,” said Chief Randy Ermineskin of the Ermineskin Cree Nation.
“Part of me is happy. Part of me is said,” said residential school survivor Evelyn Korkmaz. “But I’m glad I lived long enough to witness that apology.”
The last boarding schools closed in the 1990s, but the colonialist ideas that underpinned the school system continue to cause judgment in the Roman Catholic Church today. Francis, the first South American pope, comes from a continent where Christianity was introduced by conquerors. During a trip to Bolivia in 2015, he apologized for the “serious sins” of the church during colonialism and for the crimes committed against indigenous people.
Francis has issued an apology at several points in his pontificate – including, before Monday, for sexual abuse in the church. His most personal apology was in a 2018 letter to Chilean bishops, in which he acknowledged what he said were his own “serious mistakes” in handling a sex abuse scandal. In Ireland that year, after a national toll of widespread religious abuse, he asked for forgiveness for “the abuse of power, abuse of conscience and sexual abuse by church officials”.
The Ermineskin boarding school, when in operation, was one of the largest in Canada. In testimony before the nation’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission on residential schools, former Ermineskin students described days marked by loneliness, fear and abuse. One said she was told that the Sun Dance, an Aboriginal ceremony, was tantamount to devil worship.
Marilyn Buffalo told the commission that teachers called the children “savages”.
Overcrowding and disease outbreaks, including measles, hepatitis, and diphtheria, were common. A 1940s survey found that a third of students suffered from tuberculosis and suggested that students be sent to hospital. Instead, some were sent home and others were kept under observation.
In 1966, a supervisor of Ermineskin wrote to the Chief Superintendent of Education of the Federal Department of Indian Affairs reporting that priests were whipping girls with straps on their “bare buttocks”. She included testimony from two students. She was fired.
At least 15 children have died or gone missing at Ermineskin School during its operation, according to the National Center for Truth and Reconciliation.
Victor Buffalo was 7 years old and did not speak English when he was sent to Ermineskin. Buffalo, who is a cousin of Marilyn Buffalo, told the Washington Post that school administrators withheld food as punishment and frequently whipped him for speaking his native cry.
After such a beating in front of his friends, Buffalo, who later became a chief of the Samson Cree Nation in Alberta, retired to a nearby bathroom to cry – not because he was in physical pain, he said, but because his mother and father weren’t there to take care of him.
Buffalo said his relationship with his parents, who also attended residential schools, was strained for many decades after he left school in 1961. Severing ties with Aboriginal culture, including family ties, was the one of the goals of the system.
“The biggest thing we’ve lost is love,” Buffalo said ahead of Francis’ visit. “A family’s love, a mother’s love, a father’s love.”
As the pitch emptied after the pope left, some were playing music and chatting. Cecilia Saddleback, 78, sat down in a chair and tried to think. She said the painful memories of the day left her with “mixed feelings”.
“The nuns [at the residential school] used to speak with contempt to us,” Saddleback said. “They were like, ‘You’re not going to be worth anything. ”
But then Saddleback thinks again. She had become a teacher. The nuns were wrong, it turned out. And now the pope had come to visit his.
“I don’t have to spend money to go to Rome,” she says.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Ermineskin boarding school closed in 1970. The dorms closed in 1970, but the school remained open until 1975, according to the National Center for Truth and Reconciliation in the University of Manitoba. The previous version also incorrectly indicated that Marilyn and Victor Buffalo were not related. They are cousins. The article has been corrected.