Pope Francis delivered a formal apology in front of a livestreamed audience of more than 190 Indigenous survivors, elders, knowledge keepers, youth and community leaders on Friday, asking for God’s forgiveness for the deplorable conduct of church members.
“I want to say to you with all my heart: I am very sorry,” Francis said in Italian during a final meeting with First Nations, Inuit and Metis delegates.
“And I join my brothers, the Canadian bishops, in asking your pardon.”
Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Acting Grand Chief Eric Redhead called the long-sought apology historic and said he hopes the Pope’s words will help further the work of truth and reconciliation here in Canada.
“More than 150,000 children were stolen from their homes and forced to attend residential schools between the 1880s and 1996: a number still raw to hear in the midst of this apology and the thousands of unmarked graves being discovered,” Redhead said in a release Friday morning.
“I note the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 calls to action included a papal apology.
“This is but one call to action moving First Nations forward and I encourage everyone to continue to heed those calls.”
Redhead also applauded the delegation of 14 Indigenous survivors, elders, leaders, youth and knowledge keepers who travelled to Rome this week to share their experiences and urge Francis to travel to Canada to apologize for the church’s role in residential schools.
While the Pope committed to coming to Canada to visit Indigenous families on their homeland, he did not indicate whether he would apologize again on Canadian soil.
Instead, he said he looked forward to being able to “better express to you my closeness.”
‘This is a wonderful start’
Phil Fontaine, former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, and himself a residential school survivor said that although he had hoped to hear an apology, he was still shocked when he heard the pontiff’s words Friday.
“I didn’t think I would hear him say how he felt shame and guilt for what the church did to our people, and that he was prepared to come to Canada to meet with our people and visit our communities,” Fontaine said from Rome Friday.
“We think this is a wonderful start to this process of engagement with the Catholic Church.”
An estimated 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend residential schools. More than 60 per cent of the schools were run by the Catholic Church.
For a long time, the abuse inside the schools was kept quiet nationally. Fontaine broke the silence in 1990 when he spoke about his own experiences as a child at the Fort Alexander Residential School in Manitoba.
Thirteen years ago, Fontaine walked through the halls of the Vatican with four other Indigenous delegates to meet Pope Benedict and request an apology for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in residential schools.
Benedict expressed his sorrow and “personal anguish” but didn’t go as far as giving a formal apology.
While that changed with Friday’s apology from Pope Francis, Fontaine says there’s still much to be done, including working with the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops to make sure the apology is said again on the land where the residential schools were run.
A road to healing
Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief for Manitoba Cindy Woodhouse thanked Fontaine and other survivors for sharing their stories for the last several decades.
She called the Pope’s apology “a road to healing for our people.”
“This historic papal apology can now help to alleviate some of the ongoing suffering of residential school survivors, their descendants and their Nations,” Woodhouse said.
“I was moved by his words that we need to rebuild the relationships between grandparents and grandchildren because that is where growth of unity in family stems from, that passing of knowledge, culture, language and love from generation to generation.”
Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Inc. Grand Chief Garrison Settee said the apology “opens the door for many people to truly begin the process of real healing.”
“In addition to the apology, it is essential we see action as we move forward on our shared path of healing,” he said Friday.
“Now begins the journey of genuine reconciliation. This work will not be easy. I ask all Canadians to stand in solidarity with us as we move forward on our healing journey.”
Manitoba Métis Federation President David Chartrand said he was relieved to hear Francis’ apology ahead of an upcoming meeting between a Red River Métis delegation and the Pope later this month.
“I know many from our Nation have been waiting for this apology for many years,” Chartrand said in a release Friday.
“It is our hope that this apology, combined with an exclusive meeting between Pope Francis and the Red River Métis, will help begin the healing process and unite us on the journey of reconciliation and revitalization.”
Chartrand and the Métis delegation are scheduled to meet with Francis in Rome on April 21.
“Now that His Holiness has issued an apology to all Indigenous Peoples, we can now focus on the relationship between the Red River Métis and the Catholic Church, past, present, and future,” he said.
The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line (1-866-925-4419) is available 24 hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience.
— with files from Elizabeth McSheffrey and The Canadian Press