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Memorial for the children whose remains were discovered near the Kamloops Indian Residential School

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis apologized on Friday for the Roman Catholic Church’s involvement in a system of Canadian boarding schools that abused Indigenous children for 100 years, an announcement that comes after the discovery last year of signs of unmarked graves with the remains of hundreds of people, many of them children. “I feel shame — sorrow and shame — for the role” that Catholics played “in the abuses you suffered and in the lack of respect shown for your identity, your culture and even your spiritual values,” Francis said. Francis also promised he would travel to Canada, where he would be better able to “express to you my closeness” as part of a process of healing and reconciliation. Francis spoke during an audience at the Apostolic Palace with 62 delegates from Canada’s three largest Indigenous groups, who had traveled to the Vatican in the hope that he would apologize to survivors in Canada. This was the first apology to the Indigenous people of Canada from a pope and was a reversal of Francis’s earlier position.

From the 1880s to the 1990s, the Canadian government ran a system of compulsory boarding schools that a National Truth and Reconciliation Commission called a form of “cultural genocide.” The Catholic Church operated about 70 percent of the schools in the system. About 150,000 Indigenous children were separated from their families and sent to these residential schools, where abuse, both physical and sexual, was widespread, along with neglect and disease. Murray Sinclair, the former judge who headed the commission, estimates that at least 6,000 children went missing.

Whether the Vatican knew about the extent of abuses at the schools while they were open is unclear. The Catholic orders that operated them have been slow to open their records to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, an archive and research body. In a statement, Stephanie Scott, the center’s executive director, said that she expected it to receive full access to the records of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, an order that ran most of the Catholic schools, next month. Those documents are now largely in Rome.

“We will then be able to uncover more of what the church knew and understood during the operation of the residential schools,” she said. Friday’s audience, which began with prayers in the languages of various Indigenous groups, including the “Our Father” sung by members of the Inuit delegation, ended an emotional — and at times painful — weeklong encounter at the Vatican, part of a journey that began decades ago. “For 40 years plus I’ve been on this walk to Rome,” said Wilton Littlechild, the former grand chief of the Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations in Alberta and Saskatchewan, said at a media briefing on Thursday. In private sessions earlier this week with Métis, Inuit and First Nations delegates, Francis heard story after painful story of the abuse suffered at the hands of Catholic educators at the schools. Delegates — including survivors, leaders, elders, youth and spiritual advisers from various nations — said that the pope had listened attentively and had expressed his sorrow. The delegates said this week that they believed the pope’s commitment to healing open wounds was sincere. Immediately after Friday’s meeting, delegates said that they were overjoyed and somewhat surprised by the papal apology, and that they looked forward to greeting the pope in Canada, where he would be able to apologize directly to survivors and their families. The pope’s words today were historic, to be sure. They were necessary and I appreciate them deeply,” said Cassidy Caron, president of the Métis National Council. “And I now look forward to the pope’s visit to Canada, where he can offer those sincere words of apology directly to our survivors and their families whose acceptance and healing ultimately matters the most.”

Natan Obed, the president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the national Inuit organization, said his group was looking forward to “working with the Canadian Council of Bishops and the Vatican to not only plan for this message to be brought to Canada” but also “see action that really will be the hallmark of this reconciliation journey with the church.”

Today is a day that we’ve been waiting for certainly one that will be uplifted in our history,” said Gerald Antoine, the Dene national chief, saying that the apology had been “long overdue.” “It’s a historical first step, however, only a first step. More needs to be done,” he said. In addition to asking Francis to come to Canada to apologize to survivors and their families, the delegates asked Francis to repatriate artifacts in the collections of Vatican Museums and open the Vatican archives so that researchers could comb through records and documents regarding the residential school system. The delegates also asked Francis to revoke a 1493 papal bull issued by Pope Alexander VI that had given Spain authority over the newly discovered lands of the Americas, allowing the Spanish to colonize and enslave the Indigenous peoples and convert them to Catholicism. The papal bull, which informed the doctrine of discovery,” was “used for centuries to expropriate Indigenous lands and facilitate their transfer to colonizing or dominating nations,” according to the United Nations. Indigenous groups in Canada say that while the theories of racial superiority that underlie the doctrine have long been discredited, it continued to surface in legal disputes over land until 2014. The Supreme Court of Canada ruled that year, without naming the papal bull, that the idea that no one owned land until it was claimed by Europeans “never applied in Canada. When Taylor Behn-Tsakoza, a co-chair of the National Youth Council of the Assembly of First Nations, met with Francis on Thursday, she spoke “a lot about the doctrine of discovery,” she said. She asked him to rescind the papal bull, she said, and replace it with a new formal document that valued Indigenous people and their culture. “We didn’t just come here to complain,” she said. “We offered him solutions as well.” Phil Fontaine, another delegate and former residential-school student who, as national chief of the Assembly of the First Nations, first traveled to the Vatican in 2009 to ask for an apology from Pope Benedict XVI, said this visit had been decidedly different. There appeared to be real commitment on the part of Pope Francis “to fix things to better the lives of our people. And the first step in that is the apology. And then we work out together the work that needs to be done to address all of the very difficult situations that exist in so many parts of the country,” Mr. Fontaine said. “This is a wonderful start to the process of engagement.”

The apology won’t heal every survivor, but it will open a door, said Ms. Caron. “Survivors are at different stages of the healing journey,” she said. “Some turned away from the church and they say they don’t need an apology to heal, but for others, it was very much necessary.” “It changes the direction we continue to move forward,” Ms. Caron added. The church softened its stance on apologizing last year, after three Indigenous groups announced that ground-penetrating radar had discovered of signs of many hundreds of unmarked graves containing human remains, mostly those of children. The first announcement came in May when a First Nation in British Columbia reported that a geophysical survey indicated that the remains of 215 people lay across a river from the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. The anthropologist who conducted the survey said that the size of many of the remains suggested that they were children, like among the missing. “The eyes of the world have been upon us all week, in part because of what transpired in Kamloops,” Mr. Fontaine of the Assembly of First Nations said this week. “News of the discovery went worldwide and I am convinced at that point the church had nowhere else to go in terms of moving forward with us.” Chief Antoine, the Dene national chief, said that the Indigenous people of Canada were looking forward to the pope’s visit and that he hoped they would be “active partners” in planning it and in determining the sites Francis would travel to. “Why? Because it’s our home,” he said. “And our family needs to be involved in it.”

April 1, 2022Updated 10:57 a.m. ET


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