In a still from a Vatican-provided TV feed, the Pope prays at the Ermineskin Cree Nation Cemetery ahead of a speech to Indigenous peoples on July 25, 2022.
The Pope has made a long-awaited apology on Canadian soil to Indigenous peoples at the site of the former Ermineskin Indian Residential School outside Edmonton.
An interpreter for Pope Francis, who delivered his message in Spanish, was interrupted by applause in Maskwacis as he arrived at the words spoken by the Pope: “I am sorry.”
“I am here because the first step of my penitential pilgrimage among you is, again, asking forgiveness,” the Pope said.
“I am telling you once more that I am deeply sorry – sorry for the ways in which, regrettably, many Christians supported the colonizing mentality of the powers that oppressed the Indigenous peoples.”
The Pope acknowledged the “deplorable evil” committed in “projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation, promoted by the governments of that time, which culminated in the system of residential schools.”
Though the Pope appeared to select his words carefully – referring mostly to Catholics who had committed harms, rather than to the Church in its entirety – he did state: “The Church kneels before God and implores his forgiveness for the sins of her children. I myself wish to reaffirm this, with shame, unambiguously. I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples.”
Pope Francis said he recognized that no apology or effort to repair past harms “will ever be sufficient,” promising an investigation into the residential school system and efforts to “assist the survivors of the residential schools to experience healing.”
Acknowledging requests from the Northwest Territories and other jurisdictions for a visit, the Pope said he could not accept every invite but his words were meant for everyone.
“Know that I am aware of the sufferings and traumas, the difficulties and challenges experienced by Indigenous peoples in every region of this country,” he said.
“The words that I speak throughout this penitential journey are meant for every Native community and person.”
The visit was opened with healing drum songs and dances. A banner bearing the names of children who attended residential schools across Canada was carried through Maskwacis.
“These names matter – my mom mattered,” called out a member of the crowd.
Joining Elders, residential school survivors, chiefs and members of many Canadian Indigenous groups in attendance were the Governor General of Canada, Mary Simon, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Responses to the apology include the sentiment that it was not enough. On Twitter, several users noted that the Pope failed to acknowledge the Doctrine of Discovery – the international law giving explorers licence to claim land in the name of their sovereign. It defines vacant land as land occupied by non-Christians.
Mi’kmaq lawyer and professor Pam Palmater said rescinding that doctrine must occur “by whatever legal and religious means necessary.”
Others are waiting to see what action will follow the Pope’s words, asking: “What’s next?”
Jody Wilson-Raybould, Canada’s former attorney general and once a regional chief of the BC Assembly of First Nations, was among those looking for concrete plans and next steps.
“I think we’re ready to do that work, but we also need the Church to help us change the people that are a part of the Church, because the Church is a big part of who we are,” said Arcand.
He said, though, that he believed the Pope was genuine in his apology.
“I think the Pope is trying,” he added. “I do.”
The Gwich’in Tribal Council issued its response in a news release on Facebook, stating the apology “means different things to people of all ages and backgrounds across Canada.”
“There is also more to be done in terms of restitution and acceptance, both within our Gwich’in communities in the Northwest Territories and for survivors across Canada,” the council wrote.
Grand Chief Ken Kyikavichik said Monday’s event was about acknowledgement of the intergenerational damage inflicted on the Gwich’in Nation and about those who attended residential schools and “did not make it back home.”
He said the Pope’s apology represented a formal acknowledgement that the Catholic Church was wrong.
“It is the first step in our long process of reconciliation with the Catholic Church,” Kyikavichik stated.
Antoine Mountain, who was born in the Sahtu and is a survivor of Inuvik’s Grollier Hall residential school, told Cabin Radio the apology “didn’t put a dent in the issue at all.”
“When you extend an apology to someone, that means that you are prepared to do something – to make reparations for the past losses and damages,” said Mountain.
“I don’t see any of that happening here. All I see is tight security around the Pope and I’m wondering: where was all the security when all these children were being abused in residential schools?”
Mountain described the papal visit as “a $34-million waste of taxpayer money,” referring to estimates this month of the total cost of the Pope’s trip.
Quebec City, Iqaluit next
The Pope’s visit, with stops in Edmonton, Lac Ste Anne, Quebec City, and Iqaluit over six days, is aimed at reconciliation with Indigenous peoples and has been called, by the Pope, a “penitential pilgrimage.”
Many Indigenous leaders had said an apology on Canadian soil for the generations of harm, physical and sexual abuse, and attempted cultural erasure that took place at residential schools was long overdue.
While the Pope had apologized to Indigenous groups at the Vatican in April, an apology on Canadian soil was requested by Indigenous delegates.
The majority of residential schools were run by the Roman Catholic Church. The schools operated from the 1870s until the last school closed in 1996. An estimated 150,000 children were forced to attend.
The Pope’s visit to Canada has not been without conflict.
Dene National Chief Gerald Antoine and AFN National Chief RoseAnne Archibald wrote to the Prime Minister and Governor General last week, alleging Indigenous peoples had experienced a “pattern of disregard” from organizers in the run-up to this week’s events.
Antoine and Archibald said the visit, coordinated by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, had “evolved to be more for the benefit of Canadian Catholic parishioners and the global Christian community and less about actual moves for reparations and reconciliation with the First Nation community that was harmed by institutions of assimilation and genocide.”
The Inuvialuit Regional Corporation said last Friday it had turned down an invite to be part of the Pope’s Iqaluit visit as the IRC felt it was unclear, at the time “if a formal apology will be made.”
The IRC also called for a commitment from the Catholic Church to work with Inuvialuit on a “real approach to reconciliation.”
Meanwhile, NWT Premier Caroline Cochrane stated before the apology that the Pope’s visit was a “historic step in the healing journey of residential school survivors, their families, and their communities.”
Posting to Facebook, Cochrane wrote: “This is decades in the making – and long overdue. By meeting with Indigenous people and acknowledging the generational pain caused, we can continue to move forward with reconciliation and build a better Canada where Indigenous people have the same opportunities as the rest of Canadians.”
Events this week are being streamed live with interpretation in a number of Indigenous languages, including Dene Zhatié and Inuktitut.
The National Indian Residential School Crisis Line is open for 24 hours a day, seven days a week for those needing to talk. Call 1-855-925-4419. The Dene Nation also has a list of supports available.