Pope Francis on Sunday embarked on a historic visit to Canada, to apologize to indigenous people for abuses by Catholic missionaries at residential schools, a year after nearly 200 students were discovered in a mass grave at a former school.
The Pope described his latest unprecedented decision as a ‘penitential pilgrimage’ to atone for the role of Catholic missionaries in the forced assimilation of generations of Native children – a visit that has stirred mixed emotions across Canada as survivors and their families cope with the trauma of their losses and receive a long-sought papal apology.
Meanwhile, Canadian authorities admitted that physical and sexual abuse was carried out with impunity in the state-funded Christian schools that operated from the 19th century to the 1970s. Some 150,000 Indigenous children were taken from their families and forced to attend in an effort to isolate them from the influence of their homes, Native languages and cultures in other to assimilate them into Canada’s Christian society.
Whilst calls for more than just words of apology and remorse continue to intensify, the indigenous people still press for access to the church’s archives for answers relating to the fate of the children who never returned from the residential schools. They also asked for abusers to face justice, financial compensation, and the return of their looted cultural artifacts being held by the Vatican Museums.
After being received by Canadian Prime minister Justin Trudeau, Pope Francis was greeted by a succession of Indigenous leaders and elders who came bearing gifts. Upon the Pope’s welcome, he kissed the hand of residential school survivor Elder Alma Desjarlais of the Frog Lake First Nations as she was introduced to him.
‘Right now, many of our people are skeptical and they are hurt,’ said Grand Chief George Arcand Jr. of the Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations, who greeted the pope. Yet he expressed hope that with the papal apology, ‘We could begin our journey of healing .. and change the way things have been for our people for many, many years.’