Indigenous peoples, groups and leaders have shared mixed reactions to Pope Francis’ apology for the abuse and assimilation suffered by Indigenous children in Catholic residential schools in Canada. Many are calling for action and accountability.
The pope is on a six-day trip to Canada, where he has asked for forgiveness for the “devastating experiences that took place” at residential schools.
From the 1800s to the 1970s, Indigenous children were taken from their homes and forced to attend government-funded Christian schools in Canada, where they were physically, emotionally and sexually abused. Some children died in these schools and were buried in unmarked graves. Similar schools operated in the United States, where the explicit mission was cultural genocide.
Children were beaten and punished in these schools for speaking their mother tongue and practicing their culture and religion. As a result, the tribes suffered a loss of language and culture, and the historical trauma of these schools persists today.
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Francis spoke at the site of the former Ermineskin Indian Residential School in Maskwacis, a community in central Alberta, on Monday. The pope acknowledged that remembering residential schools “hurts, angers, causes pain, and yet it is necessary.”
“I am here because the first step in my penitential pilgrimage among you is to ask for forgiveness again, to tell you once again that I am deeply sorry,” he said. “Sorry for the way in which, unfortunately, many Christians supported the colonizing mentality of the powers that oppressed the indigenous peoples. I am sorry.
“What our Christian faith tells us is that it was a disastrous mistake, inconsistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ,” he said. “I humbly ask forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the indigenous peoples.”
Rosalyn LaPier, who is Blackfeet and Métis and professor at the University of Montanasaid the pope’s apology was important to many.
“Indigenous people everywhere are watching,” LaPier said. “Indigenous people are looking in Canada, they are looking in the United States, and they are looking in other countries around the world.”
LaPier taught religion as part of the university’s Native Studies program for years. She said Francis calling the trip a “penitential pilgrimage” has deep religious significance and underscores his goal of asking for forgiveness.
“When he said ‘penitential pilgrimage,’ I was like, ‘Oh my God. This is different. This is not a normal visitation,'” she said. I will go visit these people and say an apology and a prayer and leave.’ When you do this kind of trip, it is a religious trip.
LaPier said in his speech that the pope asked for forgiveness on several levels.
“We saw it as a human asking for forgiveness, like the church, and then saying he was going to ask God for forgiveness,” she said.
LaPier was also struck by Francis’s invocation of the word evil.
“By saying what happened was wrong, he is implying that human actors in the 19th and 20th centuries were not acting in the name of God, but were acting in the name of Satan,” she said. “He says many Christians participated in it, and it was wrong.”
LaPier said religious groups often offer justifications for past injustices.
“It’s very different to say you were doing your best or to respect your own system, than to say what was happening was wrong,” she said.
Pope’s speech awakens past trauma
When Theda New Breast, who is Blackfeet and works at the Native Wellness Institute in Oregon, began to read the pope’s speech, she stopped after a few paragraphs and went to water her flowers.
“I just said, ‘Oh, I can’t do this right now,'” she said.
His response is not unusual. For many Indigenous peoples around the world, the Pope’s visit to Canada has awakened generational trauma.
New Breast said Francis’ apology felt forced and unattainable, saying it reminded her of “the way lawyers talk”.
She meets victims of sexual assault and rape one-on-one, and she said Francis’ apology has also triggered people who have faced other forms of abuse.
“You see the perpetrators of sexual assault and rape apologizing all the time,” she said. “But that’s part of gaslighting. They do it to appear guiltless. So I’ve met young women now, who when they heard the pope’s apology, it reminded them of past abuses.
New Breast said it was imperative for groups to step in to help people heal.
“As people hear this, they need a safe place to process it,” she said. “We have to send messages to our people, saying, ‘I care about you. I love you. You count on me. …If people know you care about them and what they’re going through, it will be easier for them to heal.
“We need action”
Following the apology, many Indigenous leaders, community members and organizations called for action.
Fawn Sharp, president of the National Congress of American Indians, in a letter urged the Pope to release documents held by the Catholic Church that detail abuses in boarding and boarding schools.
“Our people and the general public deserve a full account of the abuses perpetrated against Indigenous children and families,” she wrote. “This is an urgent matter, essential to the physical, mental and spiritual health and well-being of our communities.”
Marsha Smallwho is Northern Cheyenne, uses ground-penetrating radar to search for unmarked graves near boarding school sites, in hopes of shutting down families and communities.
She said if the church released its materials, it would “make my job much easier.”
“If they open the archives so that we can find our people, our children, that would go a long way in helping us heal,” she said.
Small was unmoved by the pope’s speech on penance and said an apology without action is “empty”.
“His apology doesn’t even come as a band-aid,” she said. “It didn’t do anything. We need action. They can set up programs to help our people heal, maybe even economic repairs. It’s good to have equality. It won’t break their bank. It’s not like they haven’t already made billions from us.
LaPier said accountability could mean the church providing communities and families with the resources to relearn their languages, culture and religion, stripped from them in schools.
New Breast said she wanted Francis to outline the steps for future action.
“He could have said, ‘OK, by September 1, we will have a kit to help Indigenous families who had a grandparent or a relative in boarding school or boarding school,’” she said. “The church could also repay native student loans. It wouldn’t cost that much. We just need action.