Pope visits Canada to meet with Indigenous people


Last updated 8/5/2022 at 1:54pm


Pope Francis spoke to Indigenous people near the Erskemine Indian Residential School where radar has detected the buried bodies of students.

Winnipeg, Man.-In July, Pope Francis launched an historic six-day tour in Canada that has been dubbde as the "apology tour" or "pilgrimage of penance." The focus of the Roman Catholic church's leader was to express sorrow and support to the Indigenous people of Canada who suffered from the church's grim legacy in the country.

This was the first visit by a pope to Canada since 2002, and Francis is only the second pontiff to visit the country. All three previous visits were made by Pope John Paul II.

In 2009 Pope Benedict XVI met with Indigenous leaders and expressed sorrow for the experiences survivors endured, though he did not offer an apology. Now 13 years later, Pope Francis has traveled to Canada specifically to meet with a number of Indigenous groups, including survivors of the residential school systems. His first public words were the day after arriving, during his visit to a former residential school in Maskwacis, which is south of Edmonton, Alb. Other stops on his journey included mass at Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium and in Quebec City, before his final stop in Iqaluit.

More than 150,000 indigenous children were separated from their families and brought to residential schools, which operated between 1870 and 1996. Catholic religious orders ran most of the schools under successive Canadian governments' policy of assimilation. In the schools, the children were beaten for speaking their native languages and many were sexually abused in a system Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission called "cultural genocide."

Melissa Dux, an Ojibway, traveled from her home in Rolling River, Man. to Edmonton, Alb. to represent her community, the Keeseekoowenin First Nation, formerly known as The Riding Mountain Band, and to hear Pope Francis's words. "The Chief asked us to go because of the work we do here in the community," Dux said. "We wanted to represent our community and our faith, so we said yes."

But the trip was also personal for Dux. "I represented my own family, my parents and siblings. They went to the residential schools."

Dux noted that the Pope greeted the Alberta First Nations in their own language and acknowledged the importance of First Nations women. "It wasn't all about the Catholic church," she says. "It was all about the different people who lived in the residential schools and had so many different stories. When the Pope apologized it was like he truly meant it," she described. "There was loud weeping and tears of joy. Clapping. Yelling-not in a bad way, but to be heard; more like applause. It was so emotional to see the elders cry when the Pope apologized.

"We cried a lot during the 3 days," Dux said. "But good cries to release all the hurt our families endured. Forgiveness is so powerful."

Dux said, "He encouraged us to help our people-and to look after the elders. He understands that all of that [pain] was abuse from individuals who claimed Christ-and the church itself as an institution to try change these children from their own identity."

Many, like Dux, expressed appreciation for the Pope's words and sentiments, and found some closure and healing.

The pontiff said he was "deeply sorry" for actions by many in support of "the colonizing mentality of the powers that oppressed the Indigenous peoples." He also expressed sorrow over the schools' systemic marginalization, denigration and suppression of Indigenous people, languages and culture; the "physical, verbal, psychological and spiritual abuse" children suffered after being taken from their homes at a young age; and the "indelibly" altered family relationships that resulted.

"I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples," Francis said near the site of the former Ermineskin Indian Residential School, where radar has been used to try to locate unmarked graves of students who died while attending the school. He also asked forgiveness for "projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation promoted by the governments of the time."

However, others feel his apologies did not go far enough.

" I was hoping that he would be more specific in his apology, especially when he talk[ed] about the atrocities that the churches did on our people," Ruth Roulette, a residential school survivor told Reuters news. "And he didn't use the word 'sexual abuse.' That was one thing that really struck me."

Murray Sinclair, who chaired Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission that spent six years investigating residential schools, criticized the pope's apology, saying it placed blame on individual members and their actions rather than acknowledging the full role of the church as a whole.

Others, like Kukpi7 (Chief) Judy Wilson of Neskonlith Indian Band in British Columbia were bothered that the Pope failed to denounce or even revoke the 15th-century Doctrine of Discovery. The 15th-century papal edict had denied sovereignty to non-Christians, which was used to justify taking Indigenous land and, according to historians, underpins centuries of dehumanizing Indigenous people.

Henry Pitawanakwat, one of 22 interpreters translating the pope's speech into 12 indigenous languages, told Reuters News that he felt the words lacked action. "An apology doesn't mean anything to me," he said, recalling his mother's trauma from her residential school experience. "It's just another word in the English language unless it is supported by some kind of action, like funding to help us support our language and culture."

Nakota Sioux Nation Chief Tony Alexis agreed, "You can't just say, 'I am sorry,' and walk away. There has to be effort, and there has to be work in more meaningful actions behind words."

As part of a 2007 agreement, the Catholic church agreed to pay C$29m in compensation to residential school survivors, but distributed only a fraction of that figure, citing poor fundraising efforts. However, Canadian media revealed the church controls more than C$4bn in assets and constructed gilded cathedrals while saything it had no funds to honor compensation promises.

Melissa Dux

Thousands of Indigenous leaders filled the stadium to hear the apology from Pope Francis.

Many Indigenous leaders also feel a sincere apology should include release of school records the Catholic church refuses to unredact. Disclosing the records would help families locate the final resting places of many First Nations children.

Carol McBride, president of the Native Women's Association of Canada, noted that the pontiff's statement of regret sounded sincere. However, she told National Public Radio representatives that she had hoped the pope's apology would start a dialogue that would lead to the release of school records and the return of tribal artifacts-headdresses, carved walrus tusks, and other items that the Vatican says were gifted to Pope Pius XI from 1922 until his death in 1939.

"I just can't understand why they don't want to release those files," McBride said. "And the same thing goes with the artifacts. Those are our First Nations and Indigenous people's artifacts. Why are they sitting there at the Vatican? Why are they not here?"


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