Pope Meets Canadian Groups Seeking Apology for Indigenous Schools

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis on Monday held his first Vatican meeting with Indigenous groups from Canada who are seeking his apology over the church’s involvement in a system of boarding schools that abused Indigenous children for over 100 years.

The meeting, with two of Canada’s three largest Indigenous groups, suggests that the pope, who has declined to apologize over the matter in the past, is now prepared to discuss the church’s role as a way of making amends for the harm it caused.

The church has appeared more open to apologizing since several Indigenous communities announced last year that they had discovered signs of human remains, most likely those of children, in unmarked graves on the grounds of former residential schools.

Monday’s meeting took place at the Apostolic Palace where Francis met with Métis and Inuit delegates. More meetings follow this week. Members of the delegations attending the meetings said they hoped not only to persuade Francis to become the first pope to apologize for the schools, but also to persuade him to travel to Canada to offer his apology to surviving students of the school system and Indigenous communities in general.

“Truth, justice and healing. We hope that the church can finally begin a meaningful and lasting reconciliation,” said Métis National Council President, Cassidy Caron, who led the Métis delegates. The hourlong meeting had been “comfortable,” she told reporters in St. Peter’s Square, adding that the pope had listened and “nodded along” when three survivors of the schools had “told their truths.”

“I felt some sorrow in his reaction,” she said.

Now that the pope had heard these stories firsthand, she said she hoped that he and Catholics everywhere would “translate the words” that had been spoken “from their heads into their hearts and ultimately into real action.”

“While the time for acknowledgment, apology and atonement is long overdue, it is never too late to do the right thing,” she said.

Over the years, Francis and other popes have expressed sorrow and sadness for the survivors of residential schools in Canada, but all have stopped short of apologizing or seeking forgiveness.

“It’s been a very, very long wait,” Wilton Littlechild, the former grand chief of the Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations in Alberta and Saskatchewan, said last week before leaving for Rome. “I keep hope and pray that he does come here and say ‘I’m sorry’ to survivors. I think that will change our whole country.”

The legacy of the residential school system has become Canada’s national shame. From the 1880s through the 1990s, at least 150,000 ​Indigenous children, including Mr. Littlechild and others in the delegation, were forcibly separated from their families by the Canadian government and sent to residential boarding schools, often far from their communities.

At the schools, which were mostly run for the government by the Catholic Church, sexual, physical and emotional abuse were commonplace, as was violence. The former head of the National Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Murray Sinclair, estimates that more than 6,000 children died or vanished over the decades that the schools were in operation.

The schools were ​intended to sever the children from their culture, language and religion. Following extensive hearings, the commission called the school system a “conscious policy of cultural genocide.”

The horror surrounding the schools intensified last year after announcements by three Indigenous communities that ground-penetrating radar had revealed signs of many hundreds of unmarked graves containing human remains, most likely those of children, at the sites of former schools in British Columbia and Saskatchewan. Multiple survivors of the schools had testified at commission hearings that children had died at the schools and were buried on the grounds.

Malnutrition, disease, accidents, fire and violence were common at the schools. Searches for more remains are now underway at former school sites throughout most of the vast country.

Francis responded to the discovery of remains in June, within days after a First Nation announced finding 215 possible human remains in the grounds around the former Kamloops Residential School in British Columbia. He said he joined “the Canadian Bishops and the whole Catholic Church in Canada in expressing my closeness to the Canadian people, who have been traumatized by this shocking news.” He also announced in June that he would hold these meetings with Indigenous delegates. And in October, the Vatican announced that Francis had “indicated his willingness” to visit Canada.

A papal apology in Canada “would be one more of those steps forward along our path for true reconciliation,” Ms. Caron said.

The brutal discoveries have hardened the resolve of many Indigenous people to hold the country, and the churches that operated the schools, accountable for the past. It has also increased pressure on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to fulfill his promise to put in place the 94 recommendations of the commission, including one demanding a papal apology in Canada.

In 2017, Mr. Trudeau personally appealed to Pope Francis for an apology during a meeting at the Vatican. But that was followed the next year by a letter from the pope rejecting the idea, without explaining why.

There is speculation that Mr. Trudeau may have increased the pope’s hesitation to give an apology by demanding one. “I think that in the Vatican, they haven’t been delighted with this political pressure from a national government to apologize for something that is a very complex history,” said Massimo Faggioli, a professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University. “I believe it’s a factor that must be considered.”

The Protestant churches that, along with the government, ran just under a third of the schools have long ago apologized and fulfilled their obligation to pay reparations under a class action settlement in 2006. About 4.7 billion Canadian dollars, most of it from the government, has been paid to survivors and spent on projects including the commission.

But the Catholic Church, through the Canadian Bishops’ Conference, has fulfilled fewer of its legal obligations to survivors, failing to pay most of its 25 million dollar share of the reparations. In September, the Canadian bishop’s conference apologized for the church’s role in the residential school system and pledged a new effort to raise 30 million dollars for reparations.

The last three popes have not been shy about asking forgiveness from other groups. In 2015, while in Bolivia, Francis apologized for the “grave sins” that were “committed against the native people of America in the name of God.” Two years later, he apologized for the silence of church leaders in the Rwandan genocide of 1994.

Twelve years ago, Pope Benedict XVI wrote a letter to Irish Catholics saying he was “truly sorry” about the abuses suffered by Irish children, including those who were abused in residential institutions.

And in 2000, Pope John Paul II delivered a sweeping apology for the church’s errors over 2,000 years, including religious intolerance toward Jews, women, Indigenous peoples and the poor.

Canada’s Indigenous people have received expressions of sympathy from Francis and Benedict that stopped short of apologizing. In 2009, Benedict expressed “sorrow at the anguish caused by the deplorable conduct of some members of the Church” in Canada and offered “his sympathy and prayerful solidarity,” adding that “acts of abuse cannot be tolerated in society.”

Originally scheduled for December, the Pope’s meetings with the Indigenous groups were delayed because of the pandemic. After meeting with the delegations representing the Métis and the Inuit on Monday, Francis will meet with the delegations representing the First Nations on Thursday, before holding a culminating session with all three groups on Friday.

Ms. Caron said that when the delegation invited the pope to join them in a journey for reconciliation, he responded with three words he spoke to them in English: “Truth, justice and healing,” she said.

“I take that as a personal commitment” on his part “to personally commit to those three actions.”

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