In a series of meetings with delegations of Indigenous Peoples from Canada this week, Pope Francis is lending an ear to stories of suffering and hopes for healing.
The meetings are the latest and most high profile efforts toward reconciliation between indigenous people, the Canadian government and religious organizations.
On Monday, Francis received in audience representatives of the Métis Nation and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, along with Canadian bishops. According to Vatican News, the groups spoke about their encounters with the pontiff and what their hopes are for the next steps. They expressed their desire that the Church partner with them in helping survivors and their families in the healing process, as well as bringing any perpetrators still alive to justice.
On Thursday, Francis will welcome a delegation representing the Assembly of First Nations.
The issue of Canada’s residential schools system, which took extreme measures to assimilate Native Peoples into Canadian society in the 19th and 20th century, came to the fore last year with the publicity surrounding the graves of Native students who had died at some of the residential schools. The publicity was followed by fires in several Catholic churches, which were suspected to be cases of arson.
The Catholic Church in Canada issued a formal apology for its involvement in the government-run residential schools.
“Many Catholic religious communities and dioceses participated in this system, which led to the suppression of Indigenous languages, culture and spirituality, failing to respect the rich history, traditions and wisdom of Indigenous Peoples,” said the apology, issued September 24 by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. “We acknowledge the grave abuses that were committed by some members of our Catholic community; physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual, cultural, and sexual. We also sorrowfully acknowledge the historical and ongoing trauma and the legacy of suffering and challenges faced by Indigenous Peoples that continue to this day. Along with those Catholic entities which were directly involved in the operation of the schools and which have already offered their own heartfelt apologies, we the Catholic Bishops of Canada, express our profound remorse and apologize unequivocally.”
The bishops responded to requests to “engage Pope Francis in this reconciliation process” by announcing a December 2021 visit of “Indigenous survivors, Elders/knowledge keepers, and youth” to meet Pope Francis. The visit was postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We pledge to work with the Holy See and our Indigenous partners on the possibility of a pastoral visit by the Pope to Canada as part of this healing journey,” the bishops stated.
The residential schools system took children away from their families and placed them in boarding schools, many of them run by religious organizations — both Catholic and non-Catholic — and forced them to abandon their native language and culture. There apparently also was abuse of children at the schools. Tuberculosis and other communicable diseases led to the early deaths of many, but many families never recovered the bodies of their children or were fully informed about what happened to them.
“The schools were routinely overcrowded, underfunded, and rife with disease,” says the University of British Columbia’s Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Center. “Many children, weakened by malnutrition, did not survive. Mortality rates in some schools exceded 60%. As of September 2021, the Center for Truth and Reconciliation has documented the deaths of 4,118 children.”