Pope Francis apologized Monday for the Catholic Church’s role in Canada’s former policy of separating Indigenous children from their families and forcing them to attend Christian schools, where many were abused.
"I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples," Pope Francis said at a former Indigenous residential school in the western Canadian town of Maskwacis, Alberta.
More than 150,000 Indigenous children in Canada were forced to attend government-funded Christian residential schools from the late 1880s to the 1970s in an effort to distance them from their native languages and cultures.
Many of the children were physically and sexually abused in a system that Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has called “cultural genocide.”
Thousands of Indigenous peoples gathered Monday to hear the pope speak near the site of the former Ermineskin Indian Residential School, many wearing traditional dress. Others wore orange shirts, a symbol of residential school survivors.
The pope said the residential schools were a “disastrous error” that was “incompatible” with the gospel and said the schools had “devastating” effects on generations of Indigenous peoples.
"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," he said.
He apologized for the Catholic Church’s support of a “colonizing mentality” and called for a “serious investigation” of the traumas inflicted on Indigenous children in Catholic educational institutions.
The pope has already apologized for the Catholic Church's role in the Canadian residential schools during a visit by Indigenous delegates to the Vatican earlier this year. However, this is the first time the pope has apologized on Canadian soil.
The abuses at the Canadian residential schools drew international attention in the past year following the discoveries of hundreds of potential burial sites at former schools. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission called on the pope to apologize for the abuses on Canadian soil.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has apologized for Canada’s role in the residential school system, saying it was an “incredibly harmful government policy.”
On his arrival in Canada on Sunday, the pope was met by representatives of Canada’s three main Indigenous groups — First Nations, Metis and Inuit – along with Trudeau.
On his flight from Rome to Edmonton on Sunday, Francis told reporters "This is a trip of penance. Let's say that is its spirit."
The pope’s visit to Canada will also take him to Quebec City and Iqaluit, the capital of the territory of Nunavut.
The 85-year-old pope canceled a trip earlier this month to Africa because of a knee problem.
Some information in this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.