MASKWACIS — Tears streamed down the faces of Indigenous elders and survivors of residential schools as Pope Francis stood before them and begged forgiveness for the “deplorable evil” committed by the Roman Catholic Church.
Francis, at his first public appearance in Canada in Maskwacis, Alta., said he was sorry the church took part in the cultural destruction and forced assimilation of Indigenous people.
“In the face of this deplorable evil, the church kneels before God and implores his forgiveness for the sins of her children ? I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous Peoples,” Francis said Monday through a translator at the community’s powwow grounds.
It was an apology that Evelyn Korkmaz, a survivor of the St. Anne’s Indian Residential School in Ontario, had waited 50 years to hear,but she was left wanting more.
“Part of me is rejoiced. Part of me sad. Part of me is numb,” she said.
“I am glad I lived long enough to have witnessed this apology.”
Francis also received applause and cheers from many in the crowd of thousands as he said he felt sorrow, indignation and shame. Others sat in contemplation with their eyes closed when the pontiff said the actions of the church were a “disastrous error incompatible with the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Francis asked for forgiveness, in particular, for “the ways in which many members of the church and of religious communities co-operated, not least through their indifference, in projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation promoted by the governments of that time, which culminated in the system of residential schools.’’
Across Turtle Island, reaction to the apology was met with a diverse range of emotions.
Six Nations Elected Chief Mark Hill said, “I am pleased to see Pope Francis visiting Canada, and it is my hope that his apology is only the beginning of the Catholic church’s efforts to atone for their role in the residential school system. Everyone’s healing journey looks different, and I fully support those Survivors who have been waiting for this apology in order to move forward on their own journeys. Survivors deserve justice for the atrocities they endured at the hands of these organizations, and that starts with the Government of Canada and participating churches cooperating with investigations and turning over any and all records they have from these institutions. Following the Archbishop of Canterbury’s apology in May, I look forward to the cooperation of the Anglican Church of Canada throughout the investigation at the former Mohawk Institute.”
Murray Sinclair, former senator and chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) said, “Despite this historic apology, the Holy Father’s statement has left a deep hole in the acknowledgement of the full role of the Church in the Residential School system, by placing blame on individual members of the Church. It is important to underscore that the Church was not just an agent of the state, nor simply a participant in government policy, but was a lead co-author of the darkest chapters in the history of this land.”
The pope’s apology also left out something indigenous leaders have been calling for — revocation of the Doctrine of Discovery
The Assembly of First Nations has been among the loudest bodies calling for the renouncement of the 15th-century policy.
It was a decree from the Vatican that countries including Canada used to justify the colonization of Indigenous lands.
The AFN says the doctrine ignores Indigenous sovereignty and continues to have legal impacts today.
The apology also did not include any mention of sexual abuse or genocide, no discussion on reparations,
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in its call for a papal apology, said it should address the Catholic Church’s role in the “spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse” of Indigenous children at residential schools.
Pope Francis said children suffered “physical, verbal, psychological and spiritual abuse,” but did not mention sexual abuse.
Also absent from the apology was a promise to release documents and artifacts
One of the outstanding calls the Vatican and Catholic entities in Canada are facing is to release more documents related to the operation of residential schools, and to return Indigenous artifacts.
The news last year that ground-penetrating radar had located what are believed to be hundreds of unmarked graves at former residential school sites across Western Canada underscored the need for governments and church authorities to turn over records that could help identify those who died, advocates and Indigenous leaders say.
Still — for many who attended the apology — there was hope for healing.
Eileen Clearsky from Waywayseecappo First Nation in Manitoba held photos of her mother and father during the Pope’s address. She said she wanted to honour her parents, who were both survivors, and to find healing for her family.
“It’s been a long journey to find out who we are because of the legacy that residential school has left behind for us to deal with,” Clearsky said.
Chief Wilton Littlechild gave Francis a headdress. The former member of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission attended residential schools for 14 years as a child in Alberta.
He said he hopes the Pope’s visit furthers a pathway of justice, healing, reconciliation and hope.
Jon Crier, a residential school survivor, questioned whether the Pope’s apology is enough. He said the church must now take action and lay out a plan to repair its relationship with Indigenous people.
Treaty 6 Grand Chief George Arcand Jr. said the Pope’s apology felt genuine but action around his words is needed.
Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Marc Miller said the apology must be “the beginning and not the end.” He said more work must be done, including getting documents from the Catholic Church.