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Papal apology for Indian boarding schools in Canada gets mixed reviews

Pope Francis delivers remarks as he meets Indigenous communities — including First Nations, Metis and Inuit — at Our Lady of Seven Sorrows Catholic Church in Maskwacis, near Edmonton, Canada, on Monday
Gregorio Borgia/AP
Pope Francis delivers remarks as he meets Indigenous communities — including First Nations, Metis and Inuit — at Our Lady of Seven Sorrows Catholic Church in Maskwacis, near Edmonton, Canada, on Monday

A long awaited papal apology on Canadian soil took place on Monday in Alberta, as Pope Francis apologized to Canada’s indigenous people for the wrongs committed against them during the Residential School era.

The pope travelled Monday afternoon to the community of Maskawacis where he begged forgiveness for the Catholic –run residential schools.

“I am sorry......(applause) I ask 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, ” Francis said.

The government funded church run schools operated from the late 1800’s to 1996. The Catholic church ran 60 percent of the schools across Canada. The aim was to assimilate indigenous children into white society.

Over more than a century, about 150-thousand native children were taken from their families and forced to attend the residential schools.....thousands were physically, sexually or emotionally abused. Many died.

The residential schools forcibly separated Indigenous children from their parents as part of an effort to convert them to Christianity and assimilate them into the wider Canadian culture. In total, 150,000children from Canada's First Nations tribes were placed in 139 schools run under government contract — most by the Catholic Church — over a150-year period.

A 2015Truth and Reconciliation Commission report prompted by the harrowing tales of survivors concluded that "[children] were abused, physically and sexually, and they died in the schools in numbers that would not have been tolerated in any school system anywhere in the country."

The schools were designed "not to educate" the Indigenous children, "but primarily to break their link to their culture and identity," the report said. It concluded that the establishment and operation of the
schools "can best be described as 'cultural genocide.'"

Officially, 4,120 children died while in the care of the schools, mostly from diseases such as tuberculosis that ran rampant, according to government statistics. But estimates range considerably higher. The commission, in its report, acknowledged that the true number "is not likely ever to be known in

Last year, the unmarked graves of 215 children were found on land once occupied by the Kamloops Indian Residential School. At one time, it was the largest residential school in Canada with 500 students enrolled in the 1950s.

A similar school system was underway for approximately 150 years in the United States beginning in 1840. A recent US Dept. of Interior accounting of the schools in New York State listed only three— all in Western New York- in Buffalo, Tonawanda and Irving.

The U.S. government directly ran some of the boarding schools. Catholic, Protestant and other churches operated others with federal funding, backed by U.S. laws and policies to "civilize" Native Americans.

“I have come to your native lands to tell you in person of my sorrow. To implore god’s forgiveness, healing and reconciliation, ’ Francis said. t the end of his public apology an indigenous woman, tears streaming down her face, stood in front of the pope and sang Oh Canada in her native Cree.

For many it was an emotional day. The pope had apologized in March in Rome to a delegation of indigenous leaders from Canada......but the Vatican had been under pressure to have him make the apology on Canadian soil.

The pope was also given a gift of a traditional headdress. hich he then wore on stage as the crowed applauded. He then met with parishioners and indigenous people at the Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples, Canada’s only designated indigenous church. That included cultural singing, prayer a papal address and the blessing of the statue of Algonquin Mohawk Catholic saint Kateri Tekakwitha.

For many, the apology will begin to bring closure....for others, it will only open old wounds. But many native leaders, such as Vern Saddleback of the Samson Cree Nation, welcomed the apology

   “And for myself I’m grateful for today.  I think it was an amazing day, a historic day.  and words fail me to say what this means to my people," Saddleback said.

For others like George Arcand Jr. , the grand chief of the Confederation of Treaty Six First Nations, the apology is only the beginning: " The wrongs of the past need to be righted.  I see pope Francis’ apology today as only a first step in the church making amends towards our people  After meeting with the pope and hearing his words today I believe there is a path forward.

Tuesday the pope will hold an open air mass in Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium.