Pope apologises to Canada's Indigenous people for 'devastating' residential schools scandal

Pope Francis prays in front of Indigenous chiefs at the Ermineskin Cree Nation Cemetery in Maskwacis, Alberta. Credit: AP

Pope Francis has delivered a long-awaited apology for the Catholic church’s role in forcibly assimilating Indigenous peoples into Canada’s notorious residential school system, which led to generations of trauma and abuse.

“I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples,” the Pope said near the site of the former Ermineskin Indian Residential School, in Edmonton, Alberta. The apology opened the Pope's weeklong “penitential pilgrimage” to Canada, which is meant to help the church on its path of reconciliation with Indigenous people and help victims heal.

Pope Francis moments before his address. Credit: AP

His words on Monday went beyond his earlier apology for the “deplorable” acts of missionaries and instead took responsibility for the church’s institutional cooperation with the “catastrophic” assimilation policy, which Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has said amounted to a “cultural genocide”.

The pontiff gave his address on Monday to a gathering of thousands of Indigenous people, many of whom were survivors of the residential schools. Many in the crowd wore traditional dress, including ribbon skirts and vests with Native motifs. Others donned orange shirts, which has become a symbol of residential school survivors.

Before the speech, the Pope prayed at a cemetery near the site of the residential school.

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What happened at the residential schools?

The Canadian government has admitted that physical and sexual abuse were rampant in the government-funded Christian schools that operated from the 19th century to the 1970s.

Some 150,000 Indigenous children were taken from their families and forced to attend in an effort to isolate them from the influence of their homes, Native languages and cultures and assimilate them into Canada’s Christian society. Catholic religious orders operated 66 of Canada’s 139 residential schools, where thousands of children died from disease, fire and other causes. Various Protestant denominations operated other schools in cooperation with the government.Thousands of children died from disease, fire and other causes.

The discoveries of hundreds of potential burial sites at former schools in the past year has drawn international attention to the legacy of the schools in Canada and their counterparts in the United States. As part of a lawsuit settlement involving the government, churches and approximately 90,000 surviving students, Canada paid reparations that amounted to billions of dollars being transferred to Indigenous communities.

Canada’s Catholic Church says its dioceses and religious orders have provided more than $50 million in cash and in-kind contributions, and hope to add $30 million more over the next five years.

In a visit to Canada in May, Prince Charles was told that his mother should issue a formal apology for the scandal on behalf of the Church of England.

The National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, RoseAnne Archibald, told ITV News that she “did respectfully request that Prince Charles relay a message to his mother, the Queen, to offer an apology on behalf of the Anglican church". The Queen is the Supreme Governor of the Church of England.