MASKWACIS, Alberta — Pope Francis offered a sweeping apology directly to indigenous people on their land in Canada on Monday, meeting a critical demand from many of the survivors of church-run residential schools that have become horrific centers of abuse. forced assimilation, cultural devastation and death for more than a century.
“I humbly ask forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against indigenous peoples,” Francis told a large crowd made up largely of indigenous people, some wearing traditional clothing and headdresses, in Alberta, near the site of a former residential school. .
The pope delivered his message in a pow wow circle, a covered ring surrounding an open space used for traditional dance and drumming circles. Around them were teepees, campfires, and booths labeled “Mental Health and Cultural Support.”
Francis added that his comments were intended for “all native communities and people” and said a feeling of “shame” had persisted since he apologized to representatives of indigenous peoples in April at the Vatican.
Before his speech, Francis visited a cemetery where local indigenous people believe children were buried in unmarked graves.
He said he was “deeply sorry,” a comment that drew applause and shouts of approval, for the ways in which “many Christians supported the colonizing mentality of the powers that be oppressing indigenous peoples.”
“I’m sorry,” he continued. “I apologize, in particular, for the way in which many members of the church and religious communities cooperated, especially through their indifference, in the projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation promoted by the governments of the time, which culminated in the residential school system.
The Pope’s six-day visit to Canada, which will include a visit Tuesday to Lac Ste. Anne, a pilgrimage site that is sacred to many indigenous peoples, and meetings with indigenous and church representatives in Quebec City and the Arctic city of Iqaluit, came after years of pleas from indigenous leaders and prominent politicians for the Vatican to apologize for abusive schools.
The school system was designed to erase indigenous culture and language by forcibly separating children from their families and assimilating them into Western ways.
The Vatican’s apology came years after formal apologies from the government of Canada, which established the system, and from Protestant churches that operated a smaller number of schools.
Physical, sexual and mental abuse was common in schools, which prohibited indigenous languages and cultural practices, often through violence. The use of Christianity as a weapon to break indigenous peoples spread from generation to generation.
Christian churches ran most of the schools for the government, with Catholic orders responsible for 60 to 70 percent of the roughly 130 schools, which operated from the 1870s to 1996.
Monday’s apology, while a centerpiece of the trip, was also a starting point for what the Vatican hopes will be a closer and more cooperative relationship, in which the church can become a force for reconciliation, rather than just grievances.
Francis, who suffers from knee pain and sciatica and was pushed to the event in a wheelchair, said it was “right to remember” what happened at the site of such trauma, even at the risk of opening up old wounds.
“It is necessary to remember how the policies of assimilation -he said-, which also included the boarding school system, were devastating for the people of these lands”. Francis added: “I thank you for making me appreciate this.”
He called the abuses, often carried out with missionary zeal, a “disastrous mistake” that eroded indigenous peoples, their culture and values.
Francis also said that “apologizing is not the end of the matter,” adding that he “totally” agreed with skeptics who want action. And he said he hoped more research could be found and that “concrete ways” could be found to help survivors begin a path toward healing and reconciliation.
After delivering his speech, which he gave in Spanish and which was translated into English, Chief Wilton Littlechild of the Ermineskin Cree Nation, who had received the Pope, placed a headdress on him, whose white feathers protruded from his white tunic.
Until this year, the Vatican had rejected repeated requests for an apology from indigenous peoples. A National Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up by the Canadian government declared the schools a form of “cultural genocide” and called on the Pope to apologize in 2015.
Many Indians attribute the change in the Vatican to a startling discovery announced just over a year ago at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in the arid interior mountains of British Columbia.
An analysis of ground-penetrating radar scans found evidence, consistent with former student testimony, that hundreds of students had been buried in unmarked graves on the school grounds. Subsequent radar searches produced similar grim evidence of wreckage at other schools in the following months.
After Francis finished his remarks, many of those who had gathered to listen said they were satisfied with what he had said.
“He clearly understands the evil of colonization,” said Phil Fontaine, a former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations who, 32 years ago, was one of the first indigenous leaders to publicly describe the abuse he suffered in a Catholic residence. schools. “He I was moved by what I heard.”
But Mr. Fontaine, who sat near the pope on Monday, acknowledged that he and many other indigenous people were disappointed that the pope did not specifically address various issues. Among them is the church’s failure to honor reparations to surviving students that it agreed to pay as part of a landmark 2006 class action settlement.
The Catholic Church has paid just 1.2 million of the 25 million Canadian dollars it had agreed to collect in cash as compensation to survivors.
Still, Fontaine said the pontiff’s message was an important step forward.
“He may not have said all the words we wanted to hear,” said Fontaine, who first sought an apology from Pope Benedict XVI during a Vatican meeting 13 years ago. “But he gave us an idea of the next steps.”
Hours after delivering his apology, Francis continued what he called his “penitential pilgrimage” by meeting with more school survivors at the Church of the Sacred Heart of the First Peoples in Edmonton, Alberta’s capital.
“I can only imagine the effort it must take, for those who have suffered so much because of men and women who should have set an example of Christian living, to even think about reconciliation,” he told alumni.
Still, some indigenous people, particularly the younger ones, were indifferent to the pope’s visit and apology.
“I am very critical of the pope’s visit,” said Riley Yesno, 23, a doctoral student at the University of Toronto who is from the Eabametoong First Nation in Ontario. “And I say that as someone whose grandparents went to residential schools run by Catholics. I don’t see how any of these words that he’s going to say is going to fix the damage that residential schools did.”
After the pope spoke Monday morning, Ms Yesno said she was “taking a hard look at the royal apology, although I think there was a lot to be desired.”
While the pope’s apology was preceded and followed by traditional indigenous dances, drums and songs, the pontiff did not participate in any traditional indigenous spiritual ceremonies such as incense, the smoke created by burning cedar, sage, sweet grass and tobacco as a way of cleaning
“Why didn’t you participate in our spiritual exercises?” Rachel Snow, a member of the Iyahe Nakoda Sioux First Nation in Morley, Alberta. “It should be a two-way street.”
But most people in Maskwacis welcomed the long-awaited papal apology.
“He was genuine and good,” said Cam Bird, 42, a Cree Nation residential school survivor from Little Red River in Saskatchewan. “He believes us.”
Some indigenous people said they were still evaluating the pope’s message and how it would resonate after so many generations of devastation and trauma.
“I haven’t really digested it yet,” said Barb Morin, 64, of Île-à-la-Crosse, Saskatchewan, who wore a T-shirt that read “Residential School Survivors Never Forgotten” and whose parents suffered in the institutions. .
“I’m having a really hard time internalizing this right now.”
Jason Horowitz reported from Maskwacis, Alberta, and Ian Austen from Edmonton, Alberta.