Pope in Canada to apologise to indigenous people for abuse at residential schools

Pope Francis arrived in the indigenous community of Maskwacis, Alberta, on Monday, where he is expected to deliver a long-sought apology for the Catholic Church’s role in Canada’s “residential school” system.

He prayed silently at the cemetery near the site of the former Ermineskin Indian Residential School, as thousands of indigenous people, many in elements of traditional dress, gathered to meet the church leader.

Between 1883 and the 1970s, an estimated 150,000 kids were separated from their families at the schools, where indigenous children were brutally forced to assimilate and often the subject of neglect and physical and sexual abuse.

Catholic orders operated 66 of the 139 government-funded residential schools, the sites of what Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission called a “cultural genocide.”

The pope has called the six-day trip a “penitential pilgrimage.”

“My late family members are not here with us anymore, my parents went to residential school, I went to residential school,” Chief Randy Ermineskin of the Ermineskin Cree Nation, one of the hosts of the event, told The Associated Press. “I know they’re with me, they’re listening, they’re watching.”

It follows meetings this spring at the Vatican between the pope and respresentatives from Canada’s three main indigenous groups: the First Nations, the Metis, and the Inuit.

The Canadian tour will include stops at other residential school sites and events in Alberta, Quebec City, and Iqaluit.

The pope arrived in Edmonton on Sunday.

There, he kissed the hand of Elder Alma Desjarlais, a survivor of one of Canada’s residential schools.

Hundreds of bodies were found in an unmarked grave at the site of a former residential school in Saskatchewan last summer, setting off renewed calls for accountability for the church’s role in the conquest of indigenous peoples in North America.

Even before the shocking discovery last June near the former site of the Marieval Indian Residential School, indigenous communities have long called on the Catholic Church to acknowledge its part in colonisation.

In April, Pope Francis formally apologised for the “deplorable conduct” of Catholic leaders in Canada during the residential school era, telling a group of gathered indigenous leaders in Vatican City he deeply regretted “the abuses you suffered and in the lack of respect shown for your identity, your culture and even your spiritual values.”

“All these things are contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” he added. “For the deplorable conduct of these members of the Catholic Church, I ask for God’s forgiveness, and I want to say to you with all my heart: I am very sorry. And I join my brothers, the Canadian bishops, in asking your pardon.”

The pope, the first leader of the Catholic Church from the Americas, apologised in 2015 for the church’s “grave sins” during colonisation.