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Canada’s indigenous leaders expect Pope Francis to apologize for schools abuse scandal

A teddy bear sits beside a lantern outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in June 2021 as part of a makeshift memorial to honor the 215 children whose remains were discovered buried near the facility. (File photo by AFP)

In upcoming meetings, Canadian indigenous leaders will seek a public apology from Pope Francis over the Catholic Church’s abuse of native children in boarding schools, in light of last year’s discovery of the remains of children at Canada’s largest indigenous residential institution.

Pope Francis was elected the leader of the Roman Catholic Church nearly two decades after the last of the schools closed. He has already apologized for the Church’s role in colonialism in the Americas.

However, backed by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the indigenous elders and residential schools’ survivors, who will hold three separate private meetings with the pope in the Vatican in the coming days, now expect nothing less than a public apology for the sufferings inflicted on those children.

“We expect that these private encounters will allow the Holy Father to meaningfully address both the ongoing trauma and legacy of suffering faced by Indigenous Peoples to this day,” Canada’s bishops said in a statement, Reuters reported.

The meetings would also focus on “the role of the Catholic Church in the residential school system, which contributed to the suppression of indigenous languages, culture, and spirituality,” it said.

The stated aim of the schools, operated between 1831 and 1996 by several Christian denominations on behalf of the government, was to integrate indigenous children.

Over 150,000 native children were forced to attend the schools in an effort to isolate them from the influence of their homes and culture and assimilate them into the Canadian society by Christianizing them. But many of them were subjected to abuse, rape, and malnutrition.

“This is something that is an important step,” Gerald Antoine, chief of the Dene people and regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said of the meetings. The delegates would ask the pope “to visit our family and to apologize. I think this is an issue which is long overdue.”

The abuse scandal broke out again in May 2021 after an indigenous community unmarked a mass grave containing the remains of 215 children at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia. The new discovery reopened old wounds and brought new demands for accountability. Hundreds more unmarked burial sites have been found since.

“What really spurred things forward was Kamloops,” said Phil Fontaine, one of the survivors. “It grabbed the attention of so many people.”

Fontaine, 77, told AFP that he and his classmates suffered physical and sexual abuse when he was a boy at the Fort Alexander Indian Residential School in Manitoba.

He recalled that he was forbidden from visiting the family except for two hours on Sundays even though they lived nearby.

“Finally Canadians are saying, ‘Oh, so it’s true. This is what happened at residential schools,’” he said. “And I think it put a lot of pressure on the Catholic Church and the Vatican. Keep in mind the prime minister himself asked Francis to apologize.”

He maintained that the residential school systems simply had “cultural genocide” in their perspective.

“They decided that the best way to do that is to herd children into residential schools, forbid them to speak Indigenous language, forget about their culture,” Fontaine said. “In fact, embrace everything that was not them in terms of culture and tradition, in keeping with federal government policy.”

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