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Pope Francis apologizes to Indigenous community in Canada over church’s role in boarding school abuse

Cole Burston/Getty Images

(NEW YORK) — Pope Francis offered a long-sought apology to the Indigenous community in Canada on Monday over the Catholic church’s role in the generational abuse they suffered at Indigenous residential schools for nearly 150 years.

The schools were operated for decades by churches and the federal government of Canada to force assimilation.

“I am here because the first step of my penitential pilgrimage among you is that of again asking forgiveness, of telling you once more that I am deeply sorry,” Francis said. “Sorry for the ways in which, regrettably, many Christians supported the colonizing mentality of the powers that oppressed the Indigenous peoples.”

“I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples,” he added.

Beginning in the 1800s, thousands of Indigenous children from Canada were taken from their homes and families and placed into so-called residential schools aimed at ridding the children from ties to their Native communities, language and culture. Some of the schools were run by the Catholic church, where missionaries participated in the policies of forced assimilation and abuse.

Upon his arrival in Edmonton, the capital city of the Canadian province of Alberta, Pope Francis was greeted on Sunday at the airport by First Nations, Metis and Inuit leaders, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mary Simon, who is Canada’s first Indigenous governor general.

Francis met with residential school survivors on Monday near the site of a former residential school in Maskwacis in central Alberta.

Francis said that an apology is only a “starting point” and acknowledged that some in the Indigenous community have called for further action to address the injustice of the boarding school legacy.

“Dear brothers and sisters, many of you and your representatives have stated that begging pardon is not the end of the matter. I fully agree: that is only the first step, the starting point,” Francis said. “An important part of this process will be to conduct a serious investigation into the facts of what took place in the past and to assist the survivors of the residential schools to experience healing from the traumas they suffered.”

Chief Tony Alexis of the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation, who had called for Pope Francis to deliver an in-person apology on behalf of the church, told ABC News’ Marcus Moore that Francis’ visit is “a validation of what has happened with the church and how they’ve hurt and abused our people.”

Ahead of his historic seven-day trip to Canada, Pope Francis asked for prayers to accompany him on what he called a “penitential pilgrimage” and offered an apology to Native communities for the Catholic church’s role in the abuse.

“Unfortunately, in Canada, many Christians, including some members of religious institutions, contributed to the policies of cultural assimilation, that, in the past, gravely damaged, in various ways, the Native communities,” Francis said in a July 17 address delivered from the Apostolic Palace to the public in St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City, according to The Associated Press.

“For this reason, recently, at the Vatican, I received several groups, representatives of Indigenous peoples, to whom I manifested by sorrow and my solidarity for the evil they have suffered,″ Francis added.

According to a 2015 report released by Canada’s National Center for Truth and Reconciliation, Indigenous residential schools were an integral part of the Canadian government’s “conscious policy of cultural genocide,” where children were disconnected from their families, punished for speaking their Native languages and some faced physical and sexual abuse.

“The Canadian government pursued this policy of cultural genocide because it wished to divest itself of its legal and financial obligations to Aboriginal people and gain control over their land and resources. If every Aboriginal person had been ‘absorbed into the body politic,’ there would be no reserves, no Treaties, and no Aboriginal rights,” according to the report.

Reflecting on the generational trauma that was inflicted on Indigenous communities, Alexis recalled a conversation with a survivor who told him, “The only thing I learned in the residential school was how to hate myself.”

The pope’s visit comes a year after nearly 1,000 sets of human remains were found at the cemetery of the former Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan in western Canada and at the former St. Eugene’s Mission School for Indigenous children in Aqam, a community in British Colombia. It is unclear how many total students died at residential boarding schools and what their causes of death were.

After the graves were discovered in Canada, U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland — the first Native American to hold a Cabinet position — launched a probe in June 2021 into the U.S. government’s own role in funding Indian boarding schools as part of an effort to dispossess Indigenous people of their land to expand the United States.

The probe’s initial findings were outlined in a May report that found more than 500 American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian children died over the course of 150 years in Indigenous boarding schools run by the American government and churches.

Native Nations scholars estimate that almost 40,000 children have died at Indigenous boarding schools. According to the federal report, the Interior Department “expects that continued investigation will reveal the approximate number of Indian children who died at Federal Indian boarding schools to be in the thousands or tens of thousands.”

Haaland, whose grandparents attended Indian boarding schools, now oversees the government agency that historically played a major role in the forced relocation and oppression of Indigenous people and said that her work is a chance to bring some healing to the community.

“I have a great obligation, but I was taught by my mother and my grandfather and my grandmother that when you are asked to do something for your people that you step up,” Haaland told “Nightline” in an interview earlier this year.

ABC News’ Christine Theodorou, Kiara Alfonseca and Tenzin Shakya contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2022, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.

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