When Pope Francis touches down Sunday in Canada, he will seek to apply a soothing salve to the scarred hearts of Canada’s Indigenous peoples.
The pope has come to apologize for the historical wrongs the Catholic Church inflicted on the Metis, Inuit and First Nations.
About 150,000 Indigenous children attended Indian Residential Schools beginning in the 1820s well into the second half of the 1900s. A significant number were pried from the arms of their families by decree of the Canadian government.
They were forced to attend one of 139 schools that were eventually established and administered by various churches, about 60% by the Catholic Church.
The goal was to stamp Indigenous culture out of the “savages” as stated by Sir John A. Macdonald, the country’s first prime minister, who said it in the mid-1800s.
But in too many cases, lives were stamped out – about 4,300 to as many as 6,000 died from disease, as well as mental, sexual and psychological abuse.
Some families never heard from their children again and were left to mourn their sons and daughters without knowing their fate. Thousands appear to be buried at the former schools in unmarked graves, the locations of which are now being searched across Canada.
It was a horrific period in Canadian history. Current Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau agreed that the practice was nothing less than genocide.
It was not until March 2022 that elders, leaders, survivors and families of the departed visited the Vatican and received a long-awaited face-to-face apology from Francis for the Church’s role in the appalling schools.
The apology, as said to the Indigenous delegation, was provided by a request from Anadolu Agency.
“I 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, in the abuses you suffered and in the lack of respect shown for your identity, your culture and even your spiritual values. All these things are contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” said the pope.
“For the deplorable conduct of those 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,” he said.
The words went toward healing the open wound of residential schools but Indigenous groups also wanted the pope to deliver an apology where the atrocities took place — on Canadian soil.
“Since it was the various denominations of churches that ran the residential schools in Canada, I think it’s only right for the Pope to come to Canadian soil to apologize to indigenous families and friends of survivors,” Mary Burton of Fearless R2, a Winnipeg organization that seeks to reunify Indigenous parents with their children and youth, told Anadolu Agency via email.
Sunday marks the beginning of the pope’s five-day visit, a pilgrimage, to reach out to as many of Canada’s 1.67 million Indigenous as possible to say “sorry” once again.
“We pray this pilgrimage will serve as another meaningful step in the long journey of healing, reconciliation and hope,” Archbishop Richard Smith of Edmonton, the general coordinator of the papal visit to Canada, said June 23.
Chief Wilton Littlechild, who spent 14 years at a residential school, was hopeful the visit will prove cathartic.
“It’s about peaceful coexistence. It’s about the survivors and it’s about truth and about reconciliation,” he said at a June 27 news conference by chiefs from Maskwacis, Alberta, home of the Ermineskin Cree Nation. “We ask everyone to join us on our walk together to the path of peace, justice and reconciliation.”
The pope will attend various venues while in Canada but Burton will not attend any.
She was baptized Catholic but has no time for the Church.
“I do not respect mainstream religion,” she said. The United, Anglican, and Presbyterian churches all ran residential schools at one time, and representatives of all those religions have apologized.
The Vatican released the itinerary for the pope’s visit in late June.
During various stops, he will meet survivors of the residential school system and families, along with Indigenous and Canadian government officials, including a stop and mass in Edmonton, Alberta. Among other stops are Quebec City and Iqaliut, the capital of Nunavit in Canada’s far north and home to Inuit.
But there are criticisms about how the visit was arranged and who will attend.
“We had zero consultation on his (pope’s) pilgrimage to ground zero on our own lands,” Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations Chief Bobby Cameron said in a statement earlier this month. “Many survivors don’t have the agency, money or even technology, to attend the Pope’s visit. It was poorly coordinated by Canada and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, who dictate who fits the criteria to attend these short visits, which does not honor survivors.
“The survivors had zero choice as children, and now some await approval from the very systems that tore them from their families, homes, culture and identity as children, (it’s) absolutely ludicrous.”
At least one of those worries has been answered, as the government announced CAN$30 million ($23.4 million) to pay to survivors and families so they can attend venues during the visit.
Littlechild, who met the pope at the Vatican in March, said the pontiff’s apology may not erase the past but it could help as a step toward healing.
“For those survivors and the pain that they lived through daily, I don’t think that pain ever goes away, but at least they’re being acknowledged,” he said.