Pope apologizes for ‘devastating’ school abuses in Canada

MASKWACIS, Alberta (AP) — Pope Francis has apologized for the Catholic Church’s cooperation with Canada’s “devastating” policy of Indigenous residential schools, saying the forced assimilation of Native peoples into Christian society destroyed their cultures, severed their families and marginalized generations in ways still being felt today.

“I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples,” Francis said near the site of the former Ermineskin Indian Residential School, now largely torn down, on lands of four Cree nations south of Edmonton, Alberta.

The long-awaited apology opened Francis’ weeklong “penitential pilgrimage” to Canada, which is meant to help the church on its path of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples and help victims heal.

Francis’ words on Monday went beyond his earlier apology for the “deplorable” acts of missionaries and instead took responsibility for the church’s institutional cooperation with the “catastrophic” assimilation policy, which Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has said amounted to a “cultural genocide.”

Clasping his hands under his chin, Francis prayed at a the cemetery near the site of the former Ermineskin Indian Residential School, before being escorted by four chiefs to a gathering of thousands of Indigenous peoples. After traditional Indigenous hand drummer played and sang to welcome Francis, the pope prayed in silence and the sun peeked out after a morning of rain.

One of the hosts of the event, Chief Randy Ermineskin of the Ermineskin Cree Nation, waited for the pope in a nearby parking lot and took stock of the historic import of the day.

“My late family members are not here with us anymore, my parents went to residential school, I went to residential school,” he told The Associated Press, dressed in a traditional feathered Cree headdress. “I know they’re with me, they’re listening, they’re watching.”

Many in the crowd wore traditional dress, including ribbon skirts and vests with Native motifs. Others donned orange shirts, which has become a symbol of residential school survivors, recalling the story of one woman who recalled she had her favorite orange shirt, given by her grandmother, confiscated upon arrival at a residential school and replaced with a uniform.

On arrival Sunday in Alberta’s capital, Edmonton, Francis was greeted by representatives of Canada’s three main Indigenous groups — First Nations, Metis and Inuit — along with political and church dignitaries. At the welcome ceremony, Francis kissed the hand of a survivor of a residential school, Elder Alma Desjarlais of the Frog Lake First Nations, a gesture of humility and deference that has he used in the past when meeting with Holocaust survivors.

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