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WARNING: This story has disturbing details about residential and boarding schools. If you are feeling triggered, here is a resource list for trauma responses from the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition in the U.S. The National Indian Residential School Crisis Hotline in Canada can be reached at 1-866-925-4419.

Miles Morrisseau
ICT

MASKWACIS, Alberta, Canada – Saying it is time to find a pathway forward for healing, Pope Francis issued a long-awaited apology to the Indigenous people of Canada for the Catholic Church’s role in the brutal residential school system that separated children from their families, culture and language.

"I am deeply sorry," the Pope said, from the grounds where the former Ermineskin Indian Residential School operated from 1916 to 1975 as one of the largest government-funded schools run by the Catholic Church.

"In the face of this deplorable evil, the church kneels before God and implores his forgiveness for the sins of her children."

When the apology finally came nearly 150 years after the first Indigenous children were snatched from their families to face abuse and neglect, it drew applause and a few whoops from the hundreds of people gathered to hear the Pope at Maskwacis in the heart of the Cree First Nations and other Indigenous communities.

But it also brought tears – tears for the children who never came home, whose remains were dumped in unmarked graves. For the children who returned to their families with trauma that would endure through generations. For elders who still can’t speak of the atrocities.

And it brought renewed calls for reconciliation and reparation to the generations who were taught that their language, culture and traditions were inferior to the Christian foundations of the colonizing government.

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The apology came less than 24 hours after Pope Francis arrived in Canada on Indigenous lands for what he called a “penitential pilgrimage” through the territories of Canada’s three Indigenous peoples – First Nations, Métis and Inuit. It was his first visit to Canada.

Pope Francis prepares to deliver his apology to Indigenous people on July 25, 2022, in Maskwacis, Alberta, Canada with chiefs of the four nations on whose land he stood. (Photo by Miles Morrisseau/ICT)

"This is a special moment for our people," Phil Fontaine, a former chief of the Assembly of First Nations and a boarding school survivor, told CBC News before the Pope's speech.

"It's the beginning. It's the start."

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—Watch: Pope's visit will be livestreamed

The Pope also called for communities to work together to provide healing, support and recognition for the Indigenous peoples who suffered in the residential school system.

"Begging pardon ... is only the first step, the starting point," the Pope said. "An important part of this process will be to conduct a serious investigation and to help the survivors of residential schools."

The Pope’s message did not include an apology to the United States, where a system that created about 400 Indian boarding schools served as a model for the residential system in Canada.

An ugly history

More than 150,000 Indigenous children in Canada were taken from their families and forced to attend government-funded schools in an effort to isolate them from the influence of their homes and culture.

Catholic missionaries operated more than 60 percent of the 139 residential schools in Canada that received government funds, and more than one-fourth of the approximately 400 schools in the United States.

Thousands more attended church-funded schools.

The aim was to convert the children to Christianity and assimilate them into mainstream society. Their hair was cut, they were beaten for speaking their Native languages and they often suffered physical or sexual abuse.

Many died at the schools.

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In 2008, Canada issued a formal apology for its role in operating the residential schools, and formed a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to create a historical record of the history and enduring trauma. The commission’s harshly worded report issued in 2015 concluded the school system amounted to cultural genocide.

The commission was part of the $1.9 billion Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement reached in 2006 between the government and 86,000 Indigenous people who attended the schools as children between 1870 and 1997.

Then, in May 2021, the international spotlight shifted again to Canada with the discovery of 215 remains of children in unmarked graves around the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia. The finding set off a search for additional graves across Canada and the United States that is continuing.

Already, more than 1,000 graves have been found in Canada and similar searches are underway in the U.S.

Gathering of nations

Busloads of Indigenous people arrived in Maskwacis early Monday to hear the Pope. The clouds began to part as they arrived and the sun broke through.

Many wore ribbon skirts and orange shirts, gathering near the arbor that usually draws crowds for a pow wow. Video screens were set up outside the arbor for those who could not get inside.

They arrived to find a bag in each seat containing water, an orange and a granola bar, with volunteers handing out individual packets of tissues in anticipation of the expected tears.

Busloads of Indigenous people arrived in Maskwacis, Alberta, Canada on Monday, July 25, 2022, to hear Pope Francis speak at the site of the former Ermineskin Indian Residential School as part of a six-day swing through Canada. (Photo by Miles Morrisseau/ICT)

Many of those who attended were survivors of residential schools, though not all attended Ermineskin. One woman told ICT she went to Poundmaker residential school near Edmonton, and wanted to hear the Pope apologize.

"I am not a Catholic," she said.

Others came from miles away to hear the Pope, including Marlene Lightning, who attended school at Maskwacis.

Marlene Lightning, at right, joins with other survivors of Indigenous residential schools in Canada awaiting the arrival and expected apology from Pope Francis in Maskwacis, Alberta, Canada, on July 25, 2022. (Photo by Miles Morrisseau/ICT)

Another survivor said he was abused in residential school.

"You will decide if you accept or reject the apology," he said. "I was an angry man most of my life because society didn’t understand us survivors ... When you are abused that is all you think about. You think about it over and over again. Forgiveness is not about rewarding a perpetrator.

He continued, "Today we will hear his holiness apologize. I hear two messages. I hear an apology and I also hear the church trying to earn the trust of the communities."

A special program began before the Pope arrived, with speakers and an honor song. 

The Pope arrived at Our Lady of Seven Sorrows Catholic Church before visiting the Ermineskin Cree Nation Cemetery on the grounds, where traditional drums went silent to allow the Pontiff time to reflect and pray over what officials acknowledge includes both marked and unmarked graves.

He was introduced to the crowd by the legendary Wilton Littlechild, a lawyer and Cree chief who served as grand chief of the Confederacy of the Treaty Six First Nations and as a member of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was also at the event.

The site of the original Ermineskin Indian Residential School is now marked by five teepees, representing the four nations of the lands – Louis Bull, Sampson, Montana and Ermineskin – and a fifth representing the entrance to the school, officials said.

The Pope met privately with residential school survivors before leaving to return to Edmonton, where he will perform Mass for thousands at Commonwealth Stadium Monday afternoon.

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