Madam Governor General, Mr. Prime Minister, dear Indigenous peoples of Maskwacis and of this land of Canada, dear brothers and sisters!
I have been waiting to come here and be with you! Here, from this place associated with painful memories, I would like to begin what I consider a penitential pilgrimage. 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.
In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission asked the Pope to issue an apology in Canada for the “Roman Catholic Church’s role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children in Catholic-run residential schools.” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reiterated the invitation in 2017. Catholic officials dismissed the idea until last year, when the discovery of possible unmarked graves on former residential school grounds using ground-penetrating radar made international headlines. Pope Francis committed to the trip in the spring while meeting with a delegation of Indigenous leaders and residential school survivors at the Vatican.
Three groups of Indigenous people from Canada – First Nations, Métis and Inuit – made the trek to Vatican City last spring, where they met privately with the Pope and shared their experiences of abuse and trauma in Catholic residential schools. On April 1, the last day of the event, Pope Francis offered his first apology to the groups, almost a year after the first news reports about unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.
I recall the meetings we had in Rome four months ago. At that time, I was given two pairs of moccasins as a sign of the suffering endured by Indigenous children, particularly those who, unfortunately, never came back from the residential schools. I was asked to return the moccasins when I came to Canada, and I will do so at the end of these few words, in which I would like to reflect on this symbol, which over the past few months has kept alive my sense of sorrow, indignation and shame. The memory of those children is indeed painful; it urges us to work to ensure that every child is treated with love, honour and respect. At the same time, those moccasins also speak to us of a path to follow, a journey that we desire to make together. We want to walk together, to pray together and to work together, so that the sufferings of the past can lead to a future of justice, healing and reconciliation.
Chief Marie-Anne Day Walker-Pelletier, from Okanese First Nation in Saskatchewan, presented the Pope with two pairs of handmade moccasins in Rome last spring as part of the First Nations delegation to the Vatican. They were only on loan, however, and on Monday Pope Francis returned them to Ms. Day Walker-Pelletier wrapped in red cloth, following his formal apology in Maskwacis.
That is why the first part of my pilgrimage among you takes place in this region, which from time immemorial has seen the presence of Indigenous peoples. These are lands that speak to us; they enable us to remember.
The speech took place near the site where Ermineskin Residential School operated from 1895 until 1975. Two Catholic missionary congregations – the Sisters of Assumption and the Order of the Oblate Fathers – ran parts of the school for much of that time. Enrollment peaked in 1957 at 263. Students endured disease, abusive staff and unqualified teachers, according to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. In 1949, the superintendent of Indian agencies commented, “As there are no qualified teachers employed at the Ermineskin Indian Residential School, this institution cannot truly be called a school.”
To remember: brothers and sisters, you have lived on these lands for thousands of years, following ways of life that respect the earth which you received as a legacy from past generations and are keeping for those yet to come. You have treated it as a gift of the Creator to be shared with others and to be cherished in harmony with all that exists, in profound fellowship with all living beings. In this way, you learned to foster a sense of family and community, and to build solid bonds between generations, honouring your elders and caring for your little ones. A treasury of sound customs and teachings, centred on concern for others, truthfulness, courage and respect, humility, honesty and practical wisdom!
Yet if those were the first steps taken in these lands, the path of remembrance leads us, sadly, to those that followed. The place where we are gathered renews within me the deep sense of pain and remorse that I have felt in these past months. I think back on the tragic situations that so many of you, your families and your communities have known; of what you shared with me about the suffering you endured in the residential schools. These are traumas that are in some way reawakened whenever the subject comes up; I realize too that our meeting today can bring back old memories and hurts, and that many of you may feel uncomfortable even as I speak. Yet it is right to remember, because forgetfulness leads to indifference and, as has been said, “the opposite of love is not hatred, it’s indifference... and the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference” (E. WIESEL). To remember the devastating experiences that took place in the residential schools hurts, angers, causes pain, and yet it is necessary.
It is necessary to remember how the policies of assimilation and enfranchisement, which also included the residential school system, were devastating for the people of these lands. When the European colonists first arrived here, there was a great opportunity to bring about a fruitful encounter between cultures, traditions and forms of spirituality. Yet for the most part that did not happen. Again, I think back on the stories you told: how the policies of assimilation ended up systematically marginalizing the Indigenous peoples; how also through the system of residential schools your languages and cultures were denigrated and suppressed; how children suffered physical, verbal, psychological and spiritual abuse; how they were taken away from their homes at a young age, and how that indelibly affected relationships between parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren.
The passage omits any mention of the 15th-century papal bulls, or edicts, in which popes granted Portugal and Spain divine authority to claim sovereignty over any non-Christian lands they encountered during overseas exploration. The bulls gave rise to the Age of Discovery and a vast dispossession of Indigenous peoples throughout the Americas. While a later papal bull, issued in 1537, said Indigenous peoples were entitled to liberty and property, European powers continued to claim sovereignty over Indigenous lands. Indigenous leaders had called on the Pope to revoke the bulls and a related concept called the Doctrine of Discovery. In 2010, the Holy See told the United Nations that the bulls have already been abrogated and are “without any legal or doctrinal value.”
Kukdookaa Terri Brown, a residential school survivor and the founding chair of the NCTR’s survivors circle, was disappointed that the Pope did not specifically mention sexual abuse.
“For many of us, that is one of the most horrific crimes that happened to a lot of students,” Ms. Brown said.
I thank you for making me appreciate this, for telling me about the heavy burdens that you still bear, for sharing with me these bitter memories. Today I am here, in this land that, along with its ancient memories, preserves the scars of still open wounds. I am here because the first step of my penitential pilgrimage among you is that of again asking forgiveness, of 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. I am sorry. I ask forgiveness, in particular, for the ways in which many members of the Church and of religious communities cooperated, not least through their indifference, in projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation promoted by the governments of that time, which culminated in the system of residential schools.
“It was very emotional and tears just started coming,” residential school survivor Victor Chapais said from Maskwacis.
Mr. Chapais said hearing Pope Francis’s apology on Monday brought him back to when he was six years old and being sent to residential school in Northern Ontario for the first time. He wasn’t expecting the strong emotional reaction he had as he listened to the Pope’s words with a crowd of people he called his brothers and sisters – hundreds of other survivors who attended the government-funded and church-run institutions, which were meant to extinguish their cultures, languages and spirituality.
Fred Kelly, an Anishinaabe spiritual advisor and residential school survivor, added that acknowledging an apology is one thing, but accepting it is a personal choice for individual survivors, who still live with the emotional wounds and scars of the abuses inflicted upon them by the church.
The sentiment mimics the Pope’s spring speech in Rome, where he apologized for the conduct of individual Catholics, but not for that of the church as a whole. The phrasing appears to be grounded in two theological arguments. The first holds that church members can sin, but the church as a whole cannot. “It’s this abstract notion that the church is a holy entity,” said Darren Dias, a theology professor at the University of St. Michael’s College in Toronto. The second justification could be the church’s sprawling organization. “It’s a mixed bag of baptized people,” Dr. Dias said. “It’s not a singular institution and he’s not like the CEO of a company.”
Although Christian charity was not absent, and there were many outstanding instances of devotion and care for children, the overall effects of the policies linked to the residential schools were catastrophic. What our Christian faith tells us is that this was a disastrous error, incompatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is painful to think of how the firm soil of values, language and culture that made up the authentic identity of your peoples was eroded, and that you have continued to pay the price of this. In the face of this deplorable evil, the Church kneels before God and implores his forgiveness for the sins of her children (cf. JOHN PAUL II, Bull Incarnationis Mysterium [29 November 1998), 11: AAS 91 , 140). I myself wish to reaffirm this, with shame and unambiguously. I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples.
Dear brothers and sisters, many of you and your representatives have stated that begging pardon is not the end of the matter. I fully agree: that is only the first step, the starting point. I also recognize that, “looking to the past, no effort to beg pardon and to seek to repair the harm done will ever be sufficient” and that, “looking ahead to the future, no effort must be spared to create a culture able to prevent such situations from happening” (Letter to the People of God, 20 August 2018). An important part of this process will be to conduct a serious investigation into the facts of what took place in the past and to assist the survivors of the residential schools to experience healing from the traumas they suffered.
On the heels of a damming Pennsylvania grand jury report that found the church had covered up more than 1,000 cases of clerical abuse against minors, Pope Francis issued a letter calling the acts “atrocities.” He urged the church to pray and fast for penance, but offered few other corrective measures. “We showed no care for the little ones,” he wrote, “we abandoned them.”
I trust and pray that Christians and civil society in this land may grow in the ability to accept and respect the identity and the experience of the Indigenous peoples. It is my hope that concrete ways can be found to make those peoples better known and esteemed, so that all may learn to walk together. For my part, I will continue to encourage the efforts of all Catholics to support the Indigenous peoples. I have done so at various times and occasions, through meetings, appeals and also through the writing of an Apostolic Exhortation. I realize that all this will require time and patience. We are speaking of processes that must penetrate hearts. My presence here and the commitment of the Canadian Bishops are a testimony to our will to persevere on this path.
In a 2020 exhortation called Querida Amazonia, Pope Francis denounced the deforestation of the Amazon region and called on leaders to empower Indigenous people to serve as caretakers of the area. “It speaks forcefully against colonialism and for an appreciation of Indigenous cultures,” Dr. Dias said of the text.
Dear friends, this pilgrimage is taking place over several days and in places far distant from one another; even so, it will not allow me to accept the many invitations I have received to visit centres like Kamloops, Winnipeg and various places in Saskatchewan, Yukon and the Northwest Territories. Nonetheless, please know that all of you are in my thoughts and in my prayer. Know that I am aware of the sufferings and traumas, the difficulties and challenges, experienced by the Indigenous peoples in every region of this country. The words that I speak throughout this penitential journey are meant for every native community and person. I embrace all of you with affection.
On this first step of my journey, I have wanted to make space for memory. Here, today, I am with you to recall the past, to grieve with you, to bow our heads together in silence and to pray before the graves. Let us allow these moments of silence to help us interiorize our pain. Silence. And prayer. In the face of evil, we pray to the Lord of goodness; in the face of death, we pray to the God of life. Our Lord Jesus Christ took a grave, which seemed the burial place of every hope and dream, leaving behind only sorrow, pain and resignation, and made it a place of rebirth and resurrection, the beginning of a history of new life and universal reconciliation. Our own efforts are not enough to achieve healing and reconciliation: we need God’s grace. We need the quiet and powerful wisdom of the Spirit, the tender love of the Comforter. May he bring to fulfilment the deepest expectations of our hearts. May he guide our steps and enable us to advance together on our journey.
Development by Carys Mills