When Pope Francis lands in Canada on Sunday, he will seek to apply soothing balm to the bruised hearts of Canada’s Indigenous peoples.
The Pope came to apologize for the historic wrongs the Catholic Church has inflicted on Métis, Inuit and First Nations.
Approximately 150,000 Aboriginal children attended residential schools from the 1820s through the second half of the 1900s. A significant number were torn from their families’ arms by decree of the Canadian government.
They were forced to attend one of 139 schools which were eventually established and administered by various churches, approximately 60% by the Catholic Church.
The goal was to eradicate the native culture of “savages”, as Sir John A. Macdonald, the country’s first prime minister, said in the mid-1800s.
But in too many cases, lives were wiped out – an estimated 4,300 to 6,000 people died of disease, as well as mental, sexual and psychological abuse.
Some families never heard from their children again and had to mourn their sons and daughters without knowing their fate. Thousands of people appear to be buried in the old schools in unmarked graves, the locations of which are currently being sought across Canada.
It was a horrible time in Canadian history. Current Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has agreed that this practice is nothing less than genocide.
It was not until March 2022 that elders, leaders, survivors and families of the deceased visited the Vatican and received Francis’ long-awaited face-to-face apology for the Church’s role in the terrible schools.
The apology, as the indigenous delegation said, was provided at the request of Anadolu Agency.
“I feel shame – pain and shame – for the role that a number of Catholics, especially those with educational responsibilities, have had in all these things that have hurt you, in the abuses that you suffered and in disrespect for your identity, your culture and even your spiritual values.All of these things are contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” the pope said.
“For the deplorable conduct of these members of the Catholic Church, I ask God’s forgiveness and I want to tell you with all my heart: I am truly sorry,” he said.
The words went towards healing the open wound of residential schools, but Indigenous groups also wanted the pope to apologize where the atrocities took place – on Canadian soil.
“Given that it was the different denominations of churches that ran residential schools in Canada, I think it is only right that the Pope come to Canadian soil to apologize to the Indigenous families and friends of survivors,” Mary Burton of Fearless R2, a Winnipeg-based organization that seeks to reunite indigenous parents with their children and youth, told Anadolu Agency via email.
Sunday marks the start of the Pope’s five-day visit, a pilgrimage, to reach out to as many of Canada’s 1.67 million Indigenous people as possible to say “sorry” once again.
“We pray that this pilgrimage will be another meaningful step in the long journey of healing, reconciliation and hope,” Bishop Richard Smith of Edmonton, general coordinator of the papal visit to Canada, said June 23.
Chief Wilton Littlechild, who spent 14 years at a boarding school, hoped the visit would prove cathartic.
“It’s about peaceful coexistence. This is about survivors, truth and reconciliation,” he said at a June 27 press conference by chiefs from Maskwacis, Alberta, home of the Ermineskin Cree Nation. . “We ask everyone to join us in our walk together on the path of peace, justice and reconciliation.”
The pope will visit various places during his stay in Canada, but Burton will not attend any.
She was baptized Catholic but has no time for the Church.
“I don’t respect traditional religion,” she said. The United, Anglican, and Presbyterian churches have all operated boarding schools at some point, and representatives of all those faiths have apologized.
The Vatican released the itinerary for the Pope’s visit at the end of June.
During various stops he will meet with survivors of the residential school system and families, as well as Indigenous and Canadian government officials, including a stop and Mass in Edmonton, Alberta. Other stops include Quebec City and Iqaliut, the capital of Nunavit in Canada’s Far North and homeland of the Inuit.
But there are criticisms of how the tour was organized and who will attend.
“We have had no consultation on his (the Pope’s) pilgrimage to Ground Zero on our own lands,” Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations leader Bobby Cameron said in a statement earlier this month. “Many survivors don’t have the agency, the money, or even the technology to attend the Pope’s visit. It has been poorly coordinated by Canada and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, who dictate who meets the criteria to attend these short visits, which do not honor survivors.
“Survivors had no choice when they were children, and now some are waiting for approval from the very systems that tore them away from their families, their homes, their culture and their identity as children, (that’s) absolutely ridiculous.”
At least one of those concerns has been resolved, as the government announced C$30 million ($23.4 million) to be paid to survivors and families so they can visit the scene during the visit.
Littlechild, who met the pope at the Vatican in March, said the pontiff’s apology might not erase the past, but it could help with healing.
“For these survivors and the pain they went through on a daily basis, I don’t think the pain will ever go away, but at least they are acknowledged,” he said.
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