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Pope Francis holds a news conference aboard the papal plane on his flight back after visiting Canada on July 29.GUGLIELMO MANGIAPANE/Reuters

When Pope Francis said, on his way out of Canada, that he believes what happened in this country’s residential schools amounted to genocide, what many Indigenous people across the country heard was a long-delayed acknowledgement of an obvious truth.

Ghislain Picard, the Assembly of First Nations regional chief for Quebec and Labrador, said the Pope’s comments, which he made during his flight back to Rome at the end of a six-day Canadian tour, are a sign of progress.

“All throughout the week, there was a lot of criticism, because it seemed the Pope was hesitating in naming things,” said Mr. Picard, who is Innu.

“Many people might say ‘too little, too late’, but I think there is an opportunity to build on that.”

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During the Pope’s travels in Canada, which lasted from July 24 to July 29, he visited Alberta, Quebec and Nunavut. Along the way, he made several apologies for the role of Catholics in harms at Canada’s residential schools, about 60 per cent of which were run by the church.

Some survivors welcomed those apologies, while critics, including former senator and Truth and Reconciliation Commission chair Murray Sinclair, said the Pope’s apologies failed to acknowledge the institutional role of the church.

Before Friday, Francis had not used the term “genocide” at any time during his Canadian visit. Early in the trip, he spoke of “cultural destruction,” disappointing many residential school survivors and their descendants, who believed the phrase was an understatement.

“It’s true that I did not use the word because I didn’t think of it,” Francis said on Friday in response to a reporter’s question during his flight. “Yes, genocide is a technical word, but I did not use it because I did not think of it. But … yes, it was a genocide, yes, yes, clearly. You can say that I said it was a genocide.”

In its final report in 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission said the establishment and operation of residential schools amounted to “cultural genocide,” which the report defined as the destruction of structures and practices that allow a group of people to continue as a group.

Indigenous children who attended the schools, which operated for more than a century, were separated from their parents and communities and forbidden from speaking their native languages. They were sometimes abused physically or sexually. The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation maintains a registry of more than 4,000 children who died at or after attending the institutions.

Evelyn Korkmaz, who is a member of the Fort Albany First Nation and a residential school survivor, said she found it difficult to believe the Pope hadn’t thought of the term earlier in his visit, given that he had heard residential school survivors’ stories while he was in Canada.

“Anybody listening to these stories of being taken away from their families, and that they lost their language, their culture, their traditions – everybody knows that is called cultural genocide,” Ms. Korkmaz said.

“It’s hard for me to believe that it didn’t even occur to him to integrate that into his speech while he was here in Canada. It would have been nice to hear those words while he was here on our soil.”

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Mr. Picard noted that there has been public debate over whether or not it is appropriate to use the word “genocide” to describe what occurred in residential schools.

Now that the Pope has used the term, he hopes that debate will be put to rest.

“To me, it is not a question of numbers. It is really the impact it has on one’s people. And the intent [of residential schools] was very clear: not only to assimilate, but to eradicate Indigenous peoples in this country,” he said.

Mr. Picard added that he hopes the Pope’s comments will be followed by action, including steps to rescind the Doctrine of Discovery, a concept based on 15th-century papal decrees. The doctrine helped form the legal justification for European countries’ colonization of non-Christian lands.

Bev Sellars, a member of the Xatśūll First Nation and the author of They Called Me Number One: Secrets and Survival at an Indian Residential School, said she welcomed the Pope’s comments on genocide.

“We need to have those hard conversations – not just that this was genocide, but that the land was stolen and a destructive way of life was brought here,” Ms. Sellars said.

She did not take part in the Papal visit and avoided media coverage of the event, she said, having worked through her experience at the former St. Joseph’s Mission School, near Williams Lake, B.C., on her own terms.

An apology was long past due, Ms. Sellars said, adding that she was involved in the early 1990s in research on the effects of residential schools, including intergenerational trauma and family breakdowns.

“To me, it doesn’t make a difference, but to some people it will make a difference. And they need to take that power back,” Ms. Sellars said.

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