“I have come to your native land to come to tell you in person of my sorrows to implore God’s forgiveness, healing and reconciliation,” Pope Francis said on Monday in Maskwacis, Alberta, speaking alongside indigenous community leaders near the site of a former school.
The 85-year-old pontiff said he was “deeply sorry” for the way indigenous people had been treated and for the “disastrous” effects of colonialism on their culture.
He also described forced cultural assimilation as “evil” and a “disastrous error”.
“I ask forgiveness in particular for the ways in which many members of the church and of religious communities co-operated … in projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation, promoted by the governments of that time, which culminated in the system of residential schools.”
From the 1800s until 1996, when the last residential school officially closed, the government of Canada, with the help of the Catholic Church, ran a network of schools designed to forcibly assimilate indigenous youths.
Children, often as young as 3, were ripped from their homes without their parents' permission and taken to schools, where they were not allowed to speak their native language. Punishment for the smallest infractions was often severe and abuse was rife.
The Pope committed to a “serious investigation” into what happened at Canada's residential schools.
Before speaking, he toured the site of the Ermineskin Indian Residential School, a long-shuttered institution in Maskwacis, a community south of Edmonton in central Alberta.
Catholic missionaries operated the school from 1895 to 1969. It was closed for good in 1975.
Archival records from 1903 show that at least three children died at the school from tuberculosis. A government survey in the 1920s found that 50 per cent of the pupils at the school had the disease.
In May 2021, more than 200 unmarked graves were discovered at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia.
The grim discovery reminded the nation how poorly indigenous Canadians have been treated throughout history and it ignited a reckoning that reached the Vatican.
In April, a delegation of indigenous leaders met Pope Francis in Vatican City, where he apologised for the abuse they suffered while at residential schools.
The National Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was launched by the federal government in 2008 to explore the impacts of residential schools on indigenous Canadians, estimated that more than 4,100 children died or went missing while attending the boarding schools.
Pope Francis will also travel to Quebec City and the northern territory of Nunavut where he will meet residential school survivors.