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Pope Francis speaks during a news conference aboard the papal plane on his flight back after visiting Canada on July 29.GUGLIELMO MANGIAPANE/AFP/Getty Images

Pope Francis started his six-day tour of Canada with a deep apology for the role of many Catholics in turning the country’s residential schools into crime scenes. He ended the tour by saying those crimes amounted to genocide.

During a press conference Friday night, held at the start of his overnight flight back to Rome from Iqaluit, Francis was asked by a Canadian reporter whether the horrors perpetuated at the schools could be considered “genocide.”

Francis had not used the term at any time during his Canadian visit, which included stops in and near Edmonton, Quebec City and Iqaluit. But early in the trip, he did speak of “cultural destruction,” disappointing many residential school survivors and their descendants.

“It’s true that I did not use the word because I didn’t think of it,” he said. “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.”

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission called the schools the sites of “cultural genocide” after it interviewed some 7,000 survivors and witnesses of the abuses that ran rampant in the institutions. The commission heard horror stories of Indigenous children ripped out of their homes, deprived of their language, religion and culture. They were often beaten and sexually molested; some died.

The term “genocide” – minus the “cultural” modifier – gained currency in 2021, when the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced it had found about 200 possible unmarked graves at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C. Since then, several other Indigenous communities have used ground-penetrating radar to conduct searches and have found probable graves near other former residential schools, which operated from the late 1800s to the 1970s. The last residential school in the country did not close until 1996.

The discovery of suspected graves of children triggered international attention, putting the Catholic Church in Canada (which operated 60 per cent of the schools with the backing of the federal government) and the Vatican itself under a dark cloud. Before then, Francis had declined to apologize for the horrors perpetuated at the schools.

That changed in April, when he apologized to First Nations, Métis and Inuit representatives in Rome, and vowed to visit Canada to expand the apology.

Last Monday, at Maskwacis, Alta., once the site of a residential school, he told Indigenous groups that “the overall effects of the policies linked to the residential schools were catastrophic.”

He asked for forgiveness for the “cultural destruction and forced assimilation promoted by the governments at the time, which culminated in the system of residential schools.”

On the flight, Francis was also asked about the Doctrine of Discovery – the legal concept that allowed the colonial-era seizure of Indigenous lands – and when the Vatican would officially rescind it.

The doctrine has its roots in 15th century papal decrees, known as bulls, that gave European kingdoms the backing to take new territories so they could be turned into Christian lands. The decrees underpinned the doctrine, which was used in an 1823 U.S. Supreme Court decision that said sovereignty could be passed to Europeans because they had “discovered” those lands.

Francis did not directly answer the question and launched into a discussion about the harms and traumas of colonization.

But church officials, including Neil MacCarthy, head of communications for the papal visit, which was organized by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, have said that the doctrine has no legal or moral authority in the church.

Still, the Vatican has confirmed that it is working on a statement – release date to be determined – to repudiate formally the concepts associated with the doctrine.

Francis was also asked about his health. The 85-year-old pontiff was visibly struggling – and in some pain – during much of his Canadian trip, largely because of a bad knee. Once he left his car, he was taken to his speaking stops at churches, stadiums and pilgrimage sites in a wheelchair. Sometimes he took a few hesitant steps with the help of a cane.

The Pope admitted that he was slowing down but said he was still capable making trips. He hopes to visit Ukraine soon, though that journey has yet to be organized and comes with enormous logistical challenges, which might include arranging the use of armored railcars.

“I don’t think I can continue doing trips with the same rhythm as before,” he said. “I think that at my age, and with this limitation, I have to save myself a bit in order to be able to serve the church or decide to step aside.”

He does not want to have surgery on his knee for fear of the anesthesia. “But I will continue to try to travel,” he said.

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