Francis has faced calls throughout his papacy to apologize in Canada for the church’s role in the residential school system, but pressure grew in the past year as several Indigenous groups said ground-penetrating radar had uncovered evidence of hundreds of unmarked graves at or near the sites of former schools.
The findings spurred a national reckoning over Canada’s treatment of Indigenous people and diminished the church’s reputation here. After resisting calls for an apology, Francis told an Indigenous delegation at the Vatican in April that he was “sorry” for the behavior of “a number of Catholics” and intended to visit Canada.
Randy Ermineskin, chief of the Ermineskin Cree Nation in Alberta, said he hopes the pope’s remarks bring healing.
“We want the truth about what happened at these schools to be shared to the public,” he said. “Everyone needs to know what happened to us, and that it will never happen again.”
What to know about Canada’s residential schools and the unmarked graves found nearby
Beginning in the 19th century, at least 150,000 Indigenous children were separated from their families, sometimes forcibly, to attend residential schools, which were funded by the government and run by churches. The last school closed in the 1990s.
By all indications, they were schools in name only. Children were punished harshly for speaking their native languages and practicing their traditions, and many of them suffered neglect and sexual, psychological and physical abuse.
Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded in a 2015 report that the residential school system perpetrated a “cultural genocide,” leaving deep wounds and intergenerational trauma within Indigenous families that traces across Canada.
The commission devoted much of its report to unmarked burial sites and children who went missing at the schools. It identified 3,200 children who died, a figure that has grown since publication. The rate was higher than for non-Indigenous children.
Children died of disease, by suicide, in accidents or while trying to escape. Sometimes, neither the government nor the school recorded the names of students who died or reported deaths to their families. Many children were not returned home and were buried in unmarked graves.
An unmarked grave site drags a not-so-distant horror back into the spotlight. Is this a real reckoning?
Most of the schools were run by Catholic entities. Among the commission’s 94 calls to action was a formal papal apology on Canadian soil.
Francis is the first pope to travel to Canada since Pope John Paul II’s visit in 2002 for World Youth Day, which included an outdoor Mass at a Toronto park that drew several hundred thousand pilgrims. This trip will have a different tenor.
Papal apologies are hardly novel, and they’ve addressed past errors specific and vast, including the sins of colonialism and church discrimination against women. But when such apologies have come during foreign visits—like John Paul II, in Cameroon in 1985, apologizing for White Christian involvement in the slave trade—they’ve been tucked into otherwise standard papal programs of celebration and meet-and-greets.
The trip to Canada has much less pomp: “A penitential pilgrimage,” Francis recently called it.
Over six days, Francis has at least five scheduled meetings with Indigenous groups, and he is expected to issue a series of remorseful messages, not just one, including on Monday after visiting the former site of the Ermineskin Residential School in Maskwacis, Alberta.
Though he arrives on a Sunday, Francis will not publicly celebrate Mass until Tuesday. The Rev. Cristino Bouvette, the national liturgical director for the visit, said that was deliberate.
“I think he’s signaling that he’s come with a mission in mind and that is to encounter Indigenous people on their land,” said Bouvette, a priest whose grandmother was a residential school survivor, “and to extend that symbolic olive branch in the hope of reconciliation. … What he’s coming here to do is quite specific.”
Organizers have said the itinerary was planned with the 85-year-old pontiff’s declining mobility in mind. Francis canceled a planned trip this month to the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan to not jeopardize the health of his knee.
Investigation finds burial sites at 53 federal Indian boarding schools
His Canada visit begins in the prairie province of Alberta, which was home to the largest number of residential schools, and includes stops in Quebec City and the Arctic territory of Nunavut.
Organizers have said that Indigenous participation is a top priority, and Ottawa said last week that it would provide $23 million to Indigenous groups for the visit, including for travel costs.
But in a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Thursday, RoseAnne Archibald, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said Indigenous people have had little input in the visit and are being “re-victimized.”
“This visit and apology has evolved to be more for the benefit of Canadian Catholic parishioners and the global Christian community,” she wrote, “and less about actual moves for reparations and reconciliation with the First Nations community that was harmed by institutions of assimilation and genocide.”
For Indigenous leaders, Francis’s trip has been hard-won.
The federal government and the Anglican, United and Presbyterian churches of Canada apologized for their roles in residential schools in the 1990s and put their financial obligations to survivors under a 2006 settlement.
While some Catholic entities and local church leaders here apologized, Francis had long resisted calls, including a personal appeal from Trudeau in 2017, to follow suit.
But earlier this year, the pope welcomed an Indigenous delegation to the Vatican, capping their encounter with an apology for the “deplorable conduct” in residential schools by “members” of the Catholic Church.
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Victor Buffalo, the former chief of the Samson Cree Nation, said he cried watching the apology on television.
“For him to say that is very, very touching,” said Buffalo, 80, who attended the Ermineskin Residential School. “Our people need to hear that — that the wrongs done to us need to be rectified, need to be reconciled with.”
Though the apology was welcomed as a much-needed first step, some Indigenous people want Francis to expand it, focusing not just on the actions of specific Catholics, but also acknowledging the complicity of the institution as a whole.
During his pontificate, while dealing with the ongoing crisis of clerical sexual abuse, Francis has gradually pushed the church to more openly acknowledge failures by church leaders that contributed to the systemic nature of the crimes and coverup.
David Gibson, the director of Fordham University’s Center on Religion and Culture, said Francis’s handling of the abuse crisis has likely influenced his handling of this moment and shaped his approach to apologies: that they should be addressed to the specific victims, after meeting with them and listening to them.
“[An apology] can no longer be just a decree, read from the balcony of St. Peter’s,” he said. “It’s now a personal action between the pope and a person or people.”
Dorene Bernard was 4 years old when she was sent to the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School in Nova Scotia, where children were called by numbers and not their names. Bernard was often strapped with a leather belt and barred from speaking to her brother, who was also a student. The school was run by a Catholic entity.
She said Francis’s apology in April rang “hollow.”
“It was him apologizing on behalf of some members,” said Bernard, 66. “This is systemic abuse.”
Survivors also want church groups to release records that might help identify children who died at the schools and for Francis to address compensation. Bernard and others are calling on him to renounce papal bulls from the 15th century that enshrined the doctrine of discovery and were used to justify colonization.
“That’s my prayer,” said Bernard. “Simply saying, ‘I’m sorry,’ is not enough. You need action.”
Harlan reported from Rome.