Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greets Pope Francis
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greets Pope Francis

Glob­al pil­grim­ages by popes are usu­al­ly chore­o­graphed to pro­file a larg­er-than-life reli­gious fig­ure, greet­ed by enor­mous crowds, and cel­e­brat­ing such fes­ti­vals as World Youth Day which brings togeth­er thou­sands of whole­some teenagers.

The “pen­i­ten­tial jour­ney” of Pope Fran­cis to Cana­da began Mon­day at Maskwacîs, a remote locale in Alber­ta, host­ed by Indige­nous Cana­di­ans. The pon­tiff recit­ed the Lord’s Prayer but did not say Mass. Fran­cis only briefly left his wheel­chair but was on a mis­sion to walk humbly before Abo­rig­i­nal First Nations.

He was address­ing what has become a shame for the Church and Cana­da, the long­time (1881–1996) tak­ing of 150,000 chil­dren from their native schools and deposit­ing them in res­i­den­tial schools.

The kids were beat­en for speak­ing their native lan­guages, sub­ject to sex­u­al abuse, with thou­sands suc­cumb­ing to dis­ease and despair.

Two-thirds of the schools were run by Roman Catholic reli­gious orders.

The sep­a­ra­tion of kids from cul­ture was “cat­a­stroph­ic,” said Pope Fran­cis, aimed at the “cul­tur­al destruc­tion of Indige­nous peoples.”

He apol­o­gized at the Vat­i­can in April but is mak­ing the jour­ney to Cana­da despite age (eighty-five) and phys­i­cal infirmity.

“I humbly beg for­give­ness for the evil com­mit­ted by so many Chris­tians against the Indige­nous peo­ples,” said Pope Fran­cis, speak­ing at the site of what was once one of the largest res­i­den­tial schools in the country.

“I am so sor­ry,” he added. “I ask for­give­ness, in par­tic­u­lar, for the ways in which many mem­bers of the church and of reli­gious com­mu­ni­ties coop­er­at­ed, not least through their indif­fer­ence, in projects of cul­tur­al destruc­tion and forced assim­i­la­tion per­mit­ted by the gov­ern­ments of that time, which cul­mi­nat­ed in the sys­tem of res­i­den­tial schools.”

With his state­ments, the Pope answered a 2015 rec­om­men­da­tion by Canada’s Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Com­mis­sion, which called for account­abil­i­ty and apol­o­gy for the “spir­i­tu­al, cul­tur­al, emo­tion­al, phys­i­cal and sex­u­al abuse of First Nations, Inu­it and Metis chil­dren from Catholic-run res­i­den­tial schools.”

An apol­o­gy for the Cana­di­an gov­ern­ment was deliv­ered by then-Prime Min­is­ter Stephen Harp­er, a Con­ser­v­a­tive from Alberta.

“The treat­ment of chil­dren in Indi­an res­i­den­tial schools is a sad chap­ter in our his­to­ry,” Harp­er told par­lia­ment. “Today we rec­og­nize that this pol­i­cy of assim­i­la­tion was wrong, caused great harm, and has no place in our country.”

There came, two years ago, a dis­cov­ery that seared Canada’s nation­al con­scious­ness. The Kam­loops Indi­an Res­i­den­tial School oper­at­ed just out­side the British Colum­bia city from 1881 to 1969, when it was tak­en over from the Church by the Cana­di­an gov­ern­ment and turned into a day school.

The build­ing still stands. In June of 2021, anthro­pol­o­gist Sarah Bealieu sur­veyed the grounds with ground-pen­e­trat­ing radar, which detect­ed the pres­ence of an esti­mat­ed 205 unmarked graves.

Assim­i­la­tion was adver­tised as a strat­e­gy for bring­ing cul­ture and faith to “unciv­i­lized” chil­dren from iso­lat­ed native villages.

It was wide­ly accept­ed, school admin­is­tra­tors were hon­ored, priests and nuns posed with class­es of new­ly scrubbed pupils.

In remarks Mon­day, Fran­cis not­ed the real­i­ty of cul­tur­al genocide.

“What our Chris­t­ian faith tells us is that this was a dis­as­trous error, incom­pat­i­ble with the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” said the pontiff.

“It is painful to think of how the firm soil of val­ues, lan­guage and cul­ture that made up the authen­tic iden­ti­ties of your peo­ples was erased, and that you have con­tin­ued to pay the price for this. In the face of this deplorable evil, the Church kneels before God and implores His for­give­ness for the sins of her children.”

Wit­ness­ing his remarks was Canada’s Gov­er­nor Gen­er­al Mary Simon, an Inuk born in north­ern Que­bec and the first Indige­nous per­son to hold the post as Queen Elizabeth’s cer­e­mo­ni­al chief of state in Canada.

With bang­ing drums and chants, and a parade of chiefs and elders, Indige­nous peo­ples wel­comed Pope Fran­cis and even put a head­dress on him. The Pope came to Cana­da bear­ing a pair of moc­casins giv­en him at a Vat­i­can meet­ing in April with Abo­rig­i­nal First Nations lead­ers. He returned them to Marie-Anne Day Walk­er Pel­leti­er, a retire Okamese First Nations activist from Saskatchewan.

Sur­vivors of the res­i­den­tial schools voiced grat­i­tude for the Pope’s remarks but regrets that the Church did not speak up more force­ful­ly and soon­er. Scars remain that can­not be healed even in an apol­o­gy deliv­ered on Cana­di­an soil.

Pope Fran­cis attached great impor­tance to his pen­i­ten­tial jour­ney. Due to ill health he has already can­celed two trips abroad this summer.

But he is spend­ing five days in Cana­da, seek­ing to heal decades of hurt.

About the author

Joel Connelly is a Northwest Progressive Institute contributor who has reported on multiple presidential campaigns and from many national political conventions. During his career at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, he interviewed Presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and George H.W. Bush. He has covered Canada from Trudeau to Trudeau, written about the fiscal meltdown of the nuclear energy obsessed WPPSS consortium (pronounced "Whoops") and public lands battles dating back to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

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