Pope Francis began a historic visit to Canada on Sunday July 24, to apologize to Indigenous peoples for abuses by missionaries at residential schools, one year after the bodies of nearly 200 students were found in a mass grave at former Catholic school.
The visit is one of the key steps in the Catholic Church’s efforts to reconcile with Native communities and help them heal from generations of trauma.
During his arrival in Canada, the Pope who arrived in wheel chair kissed the hand of a residential school survivor at the Edmonton, Alberta, airport as he was welcomed by Indigenous representatives, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mary Simon, an Inuk who’s Canada’s first Indigenous governor general.
The Canadian government has admitted that physical and sexual abuse were rampant in the state-funded Christian schools that operated from the 19th century to the 1970s. Some 150,000 Indigenous children were taken from their families and forced to attend in an effort to isolate them from the influence of their homes, Native languages and cultures and assimilate them into Canada’s Christian society.
Indigenous groups are seeking more than just words, as they press for access to church archives to learn the fate of children who never returned home from the residential schools. They also want justice for the abusers, financial reparations and the return of Indigenous artifacts held by the Vatican Museums.
Francis kissed the hand of residential school survivor Elder Alma Desjarlais of the Frog Lake First Nations as she was introduced to him.
‘Right now, many of our people are skeptical and they are hurt,’ said Grand Chief George Arcand Jr. of the Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations, who greeted the pope. Yet he expressed hope that with the papal apology, ‘We could begin our journey of healing .. and change the way things have been for our people for many, many years.’
Assembly of First Nations National Chief RoseAnne Archibald, one of the country’s most prominent Indigenous leaders, said several members of her family attended residential schools, including a sister who died at one in Ontario. She described it as ‘an institution of assimilation and genocide.’
During her flight to Alberta, ‘I was just so overcome with emotion and there were different times on the plane where I really had to stop myself from breaking into a deep sob,’ she said. ‘I realized that I am an intergenerational trauma survivor and there are so many people like me.’
Francis’ week-long trip – which will take him to Edmonton; Quebec City and finally Iqaluit, Nunavut, in the far north – follows meetings he held in the spring at the Vatican with delegations from the First Nations, Metis and Inuit. Those meetings culminated with a historic April 1 apology for the ‘deplorable’ abuses committed by some Catholic missionaries in residential schools.
Then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a formal apology over the residential schools in 2008. As part of a lawsuit settlement involving the government, churches and approximately 90,000 surviving students, Canada paid reparations that amounted to billions of dollars being transferred to Indigenous communities.
Canada’s Catholic Church says its dioceses and religious orders have provided more than $50 million in cash and in-kind contributions, and hope to add $30 million more over the next five years.