The town of Iqaluit, built on permafrost, marked a fitting end for a somber, one-of-a-kind papal trip, geared primarily to atoning for the cruelty of the government-funded schools, most of which were operated by Catholic entities.
“I want to tell you how very sorry I am,” the pope said.
He noted in particular the way in which the system, aimed at forcibly assimilating Indigenous children into Christian culture, pulled children from their parents and grandparents — a practice he called “evil.”
“Families were broken up,” Francis, wearing a white jacket, told several thousand people outside Nakasuk School in Iqaluit.
He delivered his remarks in his native Spanish, translated to English and Inuktitut, in this remote region 200 miles from the Arctic Circle, where residential schools transformed life for the majority-Inuit population. It was the last of his several apologies this week.
Pope apologizes for ‘evil committed by so many Christians’ in Canada’s residential schools
Many Indigenous people said they were moved by the long-sought visit — particularly given the 85-year-old’s frailty and immobility. They said his willingness to say “I’m sorry” on Indigenous land was a crucial first step toward healing. But as the week proceeded, he faced criticism from Indigenous leaders, who said were still waiting for him to apologize for the Catholic Church as an institution.
“[The apology] fell short,” RoseAnne Archibald, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said in a television interview this week after the pope’s participation in Maskwacîs, Alberta. She was one of the Indigenous leaders who greeted Francis when he arrived in the country on Sunday.
Francis apologized personally for the “evil committed by so many Christians” but not for the church as a whole. Nor did he speak about the aspects of the institution that might have allowed it to further a Canadian government policy that the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission said amounted to a cultural genocide.
For most of the 19th and 20th centuries, Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families to be placed in residential schools often hundreds of miles from their communities. They were forbidden from speaking their native languages or practicing their cultural traditions, and in many cases, were physically and sexually abused.
What to know about Canada’s residential schools and the unmarked graves found nearby
Murray Sinclair, the lawyer who chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said Francis’s words so far had a “deep hole.”
“It was more than the work of a few bad actors — this was a concerted institutional effort to remove children from their families and cultures, all in the name of Christian supremacy,” Sinclair said.
One of the primary Indigenous requests is for the church to revoke papal decrees from the 1400s that provided religious backing for the conquest of Indigenous territory in the New World and elsewhere by Europeans.
Though Francis, the first pope from South America, has repeatedly denounced historic colonization and forced assimilation, he hasn’t directly discussed the Doctrine of Discovery, the policy that arose from those decrees. Before a Mass he celebrated Thursday at the Basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré outside Quebec City, two members of the Batchewana First Nation in Indigenous clothing unfurled a banner saying “Rescind the Doctrine.”
Pope Francis visits a Quebec that’s rapidly shedding its Catholicism
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who appeared with Francis at several of his appearances this week, said in a statement that he had discussed with him the need to address the Doctrine of Discovery, but he did not elaborate.
Several days before the trip, a Vatican spokesman said a “reflection” within the Holy See was underway.
In Iqaluit — a location “others would consider inhospitable,” Francis said — his parting words were as much about life advice as penitence. Addressing Inuit youth, he talked about self-belief, the importance of big dreams, even ice hockey. (“How does Canada manage to win all those Olympic medals?” he asked. “Team spirit always makes the difference.”)
In Quebec City earlier Friday, Francis struck a reflective tone in a morning meeting with about 20 Indigenous representatives. He said he had come as a “pilgrim, despite my physical limitations,” and that the stories he heard would always “be a part of me.”
“I dare say, if you will allow me, that now, in a certain sense, I also feel a part of your family, and for this I am honored,” the pope said.
“I am now returning home greatly enriched.”
Residential schools banned native languages. The Cree want theirs back.
Francis was on the ground in Iqaluit on Friday for less than three hours. The northernmost city in Canada is the capital of Nunavut, a territory straddling the Arctic Circle that’s three times the size of Texas but has a population of just 40,000 spread across 25 hamlets and the capital. The widely dispersed communities are connected to each other and the rest of Canada only by plane.
Until the 1950s, the area was of little interest to anybody but whalers and missionaries. Change and modernization are now unfolding with breathtaking speed.
Nunavut faces both social and environmental challenges. The poverty rate is high and housing is tight. The suicide rate is multiples higher than the rest of Canada, and the climate is warming there significantly faster than the global average, melting permafrost and putting pressure on the water supply.
Before his address, Francis met privately with residential school survivors. Then he joined an event that featured Inuit language and traditions such as throat singing. Organizers said the performers were selected to showcase the cultural expressions that residential schools tried — but failed — to completely extinguish. After his address, a choir sang the Lord’s Prayer in Inuktitut.
Francis managed the Canada trip despite being nearly immobilized by knee pain. Leading up to his departure, organizers were worried the Vatican might cancel — as he had a planned papal visit this month to the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan.
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In Canada, Francis essentially moved from one seat to the next — his popemobile, his Fiat 500, his wheelchair — relying on assistance any time he rose. The trip proceeded at a notably slower pace than others during his pontificate. He held roughly two events per day, rather than the usual four or five. In Quebec on Friday morning, he used a walker.
“It’s clear that he is making a sacrifice” to be in Canada, said one Indigenous attendee at Thursday’s Mass. Her birth name is Opolahsomuwehs, but she was given the name Imelda Perley during childhood by a nun.
Now 73, a linguist and retired teacher, Opolahsomuwehs said she still needs to “hear more than I’m sorry.”
“I want to hear about how the church will restore what it took.”