The 85-year-old Pope, who read his message sitting down, said: “I apologize for the way many members of the Church and religious communities have cooperated through indifference to these projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation.”
He acknowledged, “Policies of adjustment and dissolution, including the residential school system, were disastrous for the people of these lands.”
As he spoke, the sentiment of those present at Maskavasis was evident; An indigenous community south of Edmonton, the capital of the province of Alberta, which closed the Erminskin Residential School from 1895 to 1975.
The event was attended by hundreds of people in traditional dress, along with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the country’s first indigenous governor-general, Mary Simon.
Many lowered their eyes, wiped away tears, or bowed down and hugged the people next to them. Indigenous leaders presented and placed a traditional feathered headdress to the Pope.
“Where we find ourselves calling for pain, a suffocating scream that has stayed with me all these months,” Francis said, referring to the “physical, psychological and spiritual abuse” faced by children.
Several counselors were set up on site to provide emotional support. Not long ago, volunteers gave away small paper bags to “collect tears”.
Before the Pope’s address André Carrier of the Manitoba Métis Federation explained, “First Nations believe that if you cry, you cry love, you save the tears on a piece of paper and put them back. Put it in this bag.”
Volunteers would collect the bags and then burn them with a special prayer “to return the tears of love to the Creator.”
From the late 19th century to the early 1990s, the Canadian government sent 150,000 children to 139 church-run boarding schools, where they were separated from their families, language and culture.
Many suffered physical and sexual abuse by headmasters and teachers, and thousands are believed to have died from disease, malnutrition or neglect.
A delegation of indigenous people traveled to the Vatican in April and met with the Pope, who formally apologized for the past.
But apologizing on Canadian soil holds great significance for the survivors and their families to whom the lands of their ancestors are of special importance.
Francis would later visit the Church of the Sacred Heart of the First Peoples of Edmonton where he would give another speech to indigenous communities.
To Canada’s shock and acceptance of a dark past, as of May 2021, more than 1,300 unmarked graves have been discovered at the sites of former schools.
The Canadian government awarded millions of dollars in compensation to alumni and officially forgave itself for creating these schools 14 years ago to “kill the indigenous in the heart of the child”.
The Anglican Church also apologized after the government. But the Catholic Church, in charge of more than 60% of these schools, had not done so until now.
Canada is slowly opening its eyes to this past, described by the National Commission of Inquiry as “cultural genocide”. The discovery of more than 1,300 anonymous graves near these centers in 2021 caused a wave of disapproval.
The long-awaited, six-day papal visit sparks hope among some of the survivors and their families. Many also expect symbolic gestures, such as the restoration of indigenous art objects kept for decades at the Vatican.
On Tuesday, the Pope will celebrate mass at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton, where some 65,000 people are expected, before heading to Lake Sainte-Anne, a major annual pilgrimage site.
On Wednesday, he will visit Quebec City before the final leg of the trip, on Friday in Iqaluit (Nunavut), a city in northern Canada in the Arctic Archipelago.
Weak with pain in his knees, the Argentine Jesuit appeared on Sunday in a wheelchair, but smiling as he arrived in Edmonton. According to the organisers, his agenda was adjusted to avoid major displacement due to his health condition.