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Pope Francis apologises for ‘catastrophic’ school abuses in Canada

The pontiff said the forced assimilation of native peoples into Christian society destroyed their cultures.

POPE FRANCIS HAS apologised for the Catholic Church’s cooperation with Canada’s “catastrophic” policy of indigenous residential schools.

He said the forced assimilation of native peoples into Christian society destroyed their cultures, severed their families and marginalised generations in ways still being felt today.

“I am sorry,” Francis said, to applause from school survivors and Indigenous community members gathered at a former residential school south of Edmonton, Alberta, the first event of Francis’ weeklong “penitential pilgrimage” to Canada.

The morning after he arrived in the country, Francis travelled to the lands of four Cree nations to pray at a cemetery.

Four chiefs then escorted the pontiff in his wheelchair to powwow ceremonial grounds where he delivered the long-sought apology and was given a feathered headdress.

 

embedded268040263 Pope Francis arrives for a meeting with indigenous communities, including First Nations, Metis and Inuit.

“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, now largely torn down.

His words 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 said amounted to a “cultural genocide”.

More than 150,000 native children in Canada were forced to attend state-funded Christian schools from the 19th century until the 1970s in an effort to isolate them from the influence of their homes and culture.

The aim was to “Christianise” and assimilate them into mainstream society, which previous Canadian governments considered superior.

The Canadian government has admitted that physical and sexual abuse was rampant at the schools, with students beaten for speaking their native languages.

That legacy of that abuse and isolation from family has been cited by indigenous leaders as a root cause of the epidemic rates of alcohol and drug addiction now on Canadian reservations.

The discoveries of hundreds of potential burial sites at former schools in the past year drew international attention to the legacy of the schools in Canada and their counterparts in the United States.

The discoveries prompted Francis to comply with the truth commission’s call for him to apologise on Canadian soil for the Catholic Church’s role; Catholic religious orders operated 66 of the 139 schools in Canada.

Many in the crowd today wore traditional dress, including colourful ribbon skirts and vests with native motifs.

Others donned orange shirts, which have become a symbol of residential school survivors, recalling the story of one woman whose favourite orange shirt, a gift from her grandmother, was confiscated when she arrived at a school and replaced with a uniform.

Despite the solemnity of the event, the atmosphere seemed at times joyful: Chiefs processed into the site venue to a hypnotic drumbeat, elders danced and the crowd cheered and chanted war songs, victory songs and finally a healing song.

One of the hosts of the event, Chief Randy Ermineskin of the Ermineskin Cree Nation, said some had chosen to stay away — and that that was understandable. But he said it was nevertheless a historic, important day for his people.

“My late family members are not here with us anymore, my parents went to residential school, I went to residential school,” he told The Associated Press as he waited for Francis to arrive.

“I know they’re with me, they’re listening, they’re watching.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who last year voiced an apology for the “incredibly harmful government policy” in organising the residential school system, was also attending along with the governor general and other officials.

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