Pope Francis on Monday begged forgiveness from Canada’s indigenous community, apologizing for the Roman Catholic Church’s participation in the project of residential schools which a Canadian government body has described as genocidal. The pontiff is on a six-day apology tour of Canada, demanded since last year by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
“Dear Indigenous Peoples of Canada, I have come to your native lands to tell you in person of my sorrow, to implore God’s forgiveness, healing and reconciliation, to express my closeness and to pray with you and for you,” the Pope tweeted on Monday.
“I ask forgiveness for the ways in which many members of the Church cooperated in those projects of cultural destruction and assimilation stipulated by the government, which culminated in the system of residential schools,” he added.
The tweet came after the Pope visited the former site of the Ermineskin Indian Residential School in Maskwacis, Alberta. Visiting the local cemetery, Francis sought absolution from the four Cree nations that live in the area.
“I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples,” the Pope said.
The 85-year-old pontiff arrived in Edmonton on Sunday, for a “penitential pilgrimage” to Canada that will take him from Alberta to Quebec as well as the far-north region of Nunavut. The purpose of the trip is to mend relations with First Nations over the residential schools program, which Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2008-2015) said amounted to “cultural genocide.”
Seeking to “civilize” the children of native nations, the Canadian government separated them from their families and sent them to a network of boarding schools, which continued operating until 1969. Catholics operated 66 out of the 139 institutions, with the Church of England responsible for another 36. An estimated 150,000 indigenous children went through the system.
In addition to the “cultural genocide,” however, indigenous activists have accused the Catholic Church of a physical one as well, alleging widespread sexual abuse and even deaths at residential schools. Last year, several activist groups claimed to have found “mass graves” at four sites, from Kamloops, British Columbia to Saskatchewan.
In the weeks that followed, several Catholic churches across western Canada went up in flames in suspected arson attacks. Trudeau’s response was to denounce the residential schools as a “dark and shameful chapter of our country’s history” and to demand Pope Francis come to Canada and seek forgiveness.
Canada has already paid billions of dollars in reparations to First Nations in a settlement with some 90,000 surviving residential school students. Catholic dioceses in Canada have contributed about $50 million, and intend to add $30 million more over the next five years. Indigenous activists have also sought reparations from the British crown – as the head of both the Canadian state and the Church of England.
Some critics have pointed out that while the radar imagery cited by indigenous activists showed “disturbances” in the ground, no actual bodies have been found – only to be denounced as “genocide deniers” by much of the Canadian public.
The Pope’s trip to Canada comes just weeks after the Vatican canceled his six-day trip to South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, citing ongoing problems with his knee. Francis has been using a wheelchair and a cane to move around during the Canadian visit.