On July 25, Pope Francis apologized to Indigenous peoples on behalf of the Catholic Church, for the Church’s running of residential schools in Canada. On a visit to the former Ermineskin Indian Residential School on the lands of the Cree Nation, the Pope said, “I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples.”
Over 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend such schools from the 19th century to the 1970s, funded by the Canadian government in an attempt to forcibly assimilate Indigenous children to Western Christian culture. Authority figures at residential schools inflicted both physical and sexual abuse against the children.
“This used to be the chapel here,” said Harvey Desjarlais, Muskowekwan Residential School survivor, to the New York Times. “This is where we used to pray 10 times a day. They used to call us little savages. ‘You little savage. Your ceremonies, that’s paganism.’ That’s how they spoke to us.”
Residential schools received renewed condemnation in 2021 when hundreds of graves of Indigenous children were discovered on the grounds of such schools. “In the face of this deplorable evil,” the Pope said, “The Church kneels before God and implores his forgiveness for the sins of her children.”
In 2015, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission described the residential school system as “nothing short of cultural genocide,” concluding that many children died of malnourishment, disease, or suicide. The longer-lasting effects of forced assimilation are the extinction of several native languages, along with long-term mental health problems for the Indigenous people who did survive the residential schools.
Pope Francis has said that he will take concrete action to rectify the Church’s crimes against Indigenous peoples. “An important part of this process will be to conduct a serious investigation into the facts of what took place in the past and to assist the survivors of the residential schools to experience healing from the traumas they suffered,” the Pope said.
The discovery of mass graves of Indigenous children renewed outrage across Canada towards the system of forced assimilation. Indigenous groups called for the cancellation of the patriotic “Canada Day” in 2021, a day after 182 graves were found near the former St. Eugene’s Mission School in British Columbia. In August of 2021, protesters toppled a statue of John A. Macdonald, the first prime minister of Canada and the “architect” of residential schools.
“Sorry for the ways in which, regrettably, many Christians supported the colonizing mentality of the powers that oppressed the indigenous peoples,” the Pope said. “I am sorry.”