Education History human rights International Nicole Winfield Peter Smith Religion

Pope Apologizes For ‘Catastrophic’ School Abuses in Canada

Pope Francis puts on an indigenous headdress during a meeting with indigenous communities, including First Nations, Metis and Inuit, at Our Lady of Seven Sorrows Catholic Church in Maskwacis, near Edmonton, Canada, Monday, July 25, 2022. Pope Francis begins a “penitential” visit to Canada to beg forgiveness from survivors of the country’s residential schools, where Catholic missionaries contributed to the “cultural genocide” of generations of Indigenous children by trying to stamp out their languages, cultures and traditions. Francis set to visit the cemetery at the former residential school in Maskwacis. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

By Nicole Winfield and Peter Smith / AP

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

“I am deeply sorry,” Francis said, to applause from school survivors and Indigenous community members gathered at a former residential school south of Edmonton, Alberta, the first event of Francis’ weeklong “penitential pilgrimage” to Canada.

The morning after he arrived in the country, Francis traveled to the lands of four Cree nations to pray at a cemetery. Four chiefs then escorted the pontiff in his wheelchair to powwow ceremonial grounds where he delivered the long-sought apology and was given a feathered headdress.

“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.

His words 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 said amounted to a “cultural genocide.”

More than 150,000 native children in Canada were forced to attend state-funded Christian schools from the 19th century until the 1970s in an effort to isolate them from the influence of their homes and culture. The aim was to Christianize and assimilate them into mainstream society, which previous Canadian governments considered superior.

The Canadian government has admitted that physical and sexual abuse was rampant at the schools, with students beaten for speaking their native languages. That legacy of that abuse and isolation from family has been cited by Indigenous leaders as a root cause of the epidemic rates of alcohol and drug addiction now on Canadian reservations.

The discoveries of hundreds of potential burial sites at former schools in the past year drew international attention to the legacy of the schools in Canada and their counterparts in the United States. The discoveries prompted Francis to comply with the truth commission’s call for him to apologize on Canadian soil for the Catholic Church’s role; Catholic religious orders operated 66 of the 139 schools in Canada.

Many in the crowd Monday wore traditional dress, including colorful ribbon skirts and vests with Native motifs. Others donned orange shirts, which have become a symbol of residential school survivors, recalling the story of one woman whose favorite orange shirt, a gift from her grandmother, was confiscated when she arrived at a school and replaced with a uniform.

Despite the solemnity of the event, the atmosphere seemed at times joyful: Chiefs processed into the site venue to a hypnotic drumbeat, elders danced and the crowd cheered and chanted war songs, victory songs and finally a healing song.

One of the hosts of the event, Chief Randy Ermineskin of the Ermineskin Cree Nation, said some had chosen to stay away — and that that was understandable. But he said it was nevertheless a historic, important day for his people.

“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 as he waited for Francis to arrive. “I know they’re with me, they’re listening, they’re watching.”

Felisha Crier Hosein traveled from Florida to attend in the place of her mother, who helped create the museum for the nearby Samson Cree Nation and had planned to attend, but died in May.

“I came here to represent her and to be here for the elders and the community,” said Hosein, who wore one of her mother’s colorful ribbon skirts.

“Sorry is not going to make what happened go away,” she said. “But it means a lot to the elders.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who last year voiced an apology for the “incredibly harmful government policy” in organizing the residential school system, was also attending along with the governor general and other officials.

As part of a lawsuit settlement involving the government, churches and approximately 90,000 survivors, Canada paid reparations that amounted to billions of dollars being transferred to Indigenous communities. Canada’s Catholic Church says its dioceses and religious orders have provided more than $50 million in cash and in-kind contributions and hope to add $30 million more over the next five years.

While the pope acknowledged institutional blame, he also made clear that Catholic missionaries were merely cooperating with and implementing the government policy of assimilation, which he termed the “colonizing mentality of the powers.”

“I ask forgiveness, in particular, for the ways in which many members of the Church and of religious communities cooperated, not least through their indifference, in projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation promoted by the governments of that time, which culminated in the system of residential schools,” he said.

He said the policy marginalized generations, suppressed Indigenous languages, severed families, led to physical, verbal, psychological and spiritual abuse and “indelibly affected relationships between parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren.” He called for further investigation, a possible reference to Indigenous demands for further access to church records and personnel files of the priests and nuns to identify who was responsible for the abuses.

“Although Christian charity was not absent, and there were many outstanding instances of devotion and care for children, the overall effects of the policies linked to the residential schools were catastrophic,” Francis said. “ What our Christian faith tells us is that this was a disastrous error, incompatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

The first pope from the Americas was determined to make this trip, even though torn knee ligaments forced him to cancel a visit to Africa earlier this month.

The six-day visit — which will also include other former school sites in Alberta, Quebec City and Iqaluit, Nunavut, in the far north — follows meetings Francis held in the spring at the Vatican with delegations from the First Nations, Metis and Inuit. Those meetings culminated with an April 1 apology for the “deplorable” abuses committed by some Catholic missionaries in residential schools and Francis’ promise to deliver an apology in person on Canadian soil.

Francis recalled that during in April, one of the delegations gave him a set of beaded moccasins as a symbol of the children who never returned from the schools, and asked him to return them in Canada. Francis said in these months they had “kept alive my sense of sorrow, indignation and shame” but that in returning them he hoped they could also represent a path to walk together.

Event organizers said they would do everything possible to make sure survivors could attend the event, busing them in and offering mental health counselors to be on hand knowing that the event could be traumatic for some.

Francis acknowledged that the memories could trigger old wounds, and that even his mere presence there could be traumatic, but he said remembering was important to prevent indifference.

“It is necessary to remember how the policies of assimilation and enfranchisement, which also included the residential school system, were devastating for the people of these lands,” he said.

Later Monday, Francis was scheduled to visit Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples, a Catholic parish in Edmonton oriented toward Indigenous people and culture. The church, whose sanctuary was dedicated last week after being restored from a fire, incorporates Indigenous language and customs in liturgy.


Associated Press writer Rob Gillies in Toronto contributed to this report.

Nicole Winfield
Nicole Winfield

Associated Press correspondent based in Rome, covering Vatican, Italy

Peter Smith
Peter Smith

Reporter covering religion and politics with @AP‘s Global Religion team. Previously covered religion for @PittsburghPG and @courierjournal


  1. Oh, the horror, the horror. That heart of darkness that is the Church.


    Hmm, like Israel’s reparations for Occupying Palestine?

    Oh, those Wish I was a Rich/Rothschild Man lawyers. Get them on the case!

    Interesting, no, these cold cases: Here, a tangent!

    By Dan Lieberman / July 22nd, 2022

    Post World War II Germany has exhibited commendable characteristics — publicly atoning for its Nazi past, working assiduously to create a thriving nation, designing a truly democratic country, integrating its European compatriots into a common market, leading others in opening borders to refugees, and modifying its previous ultra-nationalism to form the European union. Behind these praiseworthy attributes lurks another Germany and with a deadly appearance. Germany, which committed the World War II genocide, actively aids and abets another genocide ─ the genocide of the Palestinian people.

    Conferences, reports, articles, and discussions have described the programs and assistance by which Germany has politically, financially, and militarily supported Israel and enabled the Zionists to violate international norms, illegally seize control of Palestinian lands, and suppress Palestinian aspirations for freedom and self-rule. Slipping under the radar is how Zionists exploit German benevolence and subvert German institutions in foreign lands to serve Israel. After a brief summary of how Germany contributed to Israel’s destruction of the Palestinian people, an example of the deliberate subversion will be discussed

    Starting in 1952, West Germany agreed to pay three billion Deutschmarks (DM) to the newly formed Israel and an additional 4.5 million DM to Jewish organizations for assistance to Holocaust survivors worldwide. Estimates have the total reparations paid to Israel accruing to between $25 and $30 billion. The United States State Department estimates that, by 2018, payments from various programs to all survivors were $86.8 billion. The final amount may reach $100 billion.

    The Federal Republic of Germany’s reparations enabled apartheid Israel to develop infrastructure—roads, railways, and shipping. Israel used the funds to buy patrol boats, tanks, weapons, and Germany’s Dolphin-class submarines, which can be fitted with nuclear warheads. German reparations have contributed to the destruction of the Palestinian people and to the possible destruction of Iran.

    Enhancing Israel’s military efforts is only one facet of Germany’s allegiance to the apartheid state. The Bundestag, Germany’s federal parliament, voted to declare Israel’s existence to be part of Germany’s national interest and passed a non-binding resolution that designated the BDS movement as anti-Semitic.

  2. Oh, the AP, asleep at that wheel.

    Read, “Canada Evades its Genocidal Legacy to Mask its Ongoing Crimes
    When the Killers conduct the Autopsy, don’t expect the Truth” by Kevin Annett


    Dear Michael and Alen,

    Hello to you both and thank you for writing.

    I would be happy to speak to you about the social tensions and conflict caused by unpunished crimes committed by the Roman Catholic church, including its standing policy known as Crimen Sollicitationas that requires that Catholics not report in-house child abuse to the police and help cover it up. That criminal conspiracy has helped caused the death of tens of thousands of native children in the misnamed “Indian residential schools” and intergenerational trauma, suicide and misery. And the failure of the government, the courts, and police to hold the Catholic church accountable under the law has created the outrage and frustration that leads to broken church windows and what you call “vandalism”.

    Considering that the Catholic church is actively subverting the law by witholding from your police force evidence of child abuse in its Vancouver churches, many people are wondering why neither the courts nor your Department are taking action to stop such criminality by the church. Instead, your main concern appears to be protecting their property. I am sure that neither of you wish to appear to collude with criminality, no matter who commits it.

    Over the years, we have provided to the police and media considerable evidence of child trafficking networks being operated in Vancouver and at such locations as Holy Rosary Cathedral and the Vancouver Club. And yet the police have time and again done nothing about it. Such a tacit collusion with a criminal conspiracy to protect child rapists may account for the frustration felt by people victimized by that church that leads to attacks against church property. But surely the systematic violation and taking of children’s lives by that church is as serious and much worse a crime than the breaking of church windows.

    Under international law, the Roman Catholic church is considered a Transnational Criminal Organization (TNCO) because of its proven record of laundering drug cartel money, child torture and trafficking, arms dealing, and centuries of deliberate genocide. Under the United Nations Convention on TNCO’s (2000), such a criminal body has lost its right to its own property and assets, which can be lawfully seized, including by citizens if the police and courts refuse to act. And so what you may consider vandalism against the Catholic church and the seizure of its buildings by indigenous people is actually prescribed by the requirements of international law.

    During December, indigenous elders and I are holding a series of public forums and actions that will hold the Catholic church accountable for its many crimes. As part of that effort I will be addressing the matter raised in your letter, including on my upcoming global blog radio program this Sunday. I welcome you or other representatives of the Vancouver Police Department to speak with me live on that program concerning why people feel the need to resort to vandalism when they are denied justice; and what steps the Vancouver police will take now to investigate and prosecute crimes committed by the Roman Catholic church in our city.

    I look forward to your reply.


    Rev. Kevin D. Annett, M.A., M.Div.
    Canadian Field Secretary of the International Tribunal of Crimes of Church and State (ITCCS)


      Was the citation grabbed because it appears to support what you want to believe? Do you know anything about this guy you’re quoting?

      —The same who claimed that Chinese troops have landed in northern BC to protect the pope. Because China and the Vatican are plotting to take over North America.
      —The same whose old line Protestantism sees Roman Catholicism as evil incarnate; practicing the blood sacrifice of children. The same kind of mind set as those 8Chan conspiracies about pizza parlors as fronts for child molesting Democrats.
      —The same who has been a thorn in the side of First Nation Canadians for decades.

      The apparent fact that he was “right” about Native children in mass graveyards isn’t due to his courageous diligence, but rather to being an extreme right wing true believer. Despite accounts written by or about him as if he alone were the only crusader for truth.

      Worst of all, bringing him into the picture is just one more version of white savior. Whether conservative advocate of western religion or the good guy who sides with the natives of white liberal lore, it’s offensive. Native peoples knew about this all along. That “no one” believed them really means that no one white and important could be bothered.

      If you want true voices, read or watch the accounts by the First Nations people themselves.

  3. Pope should apologize for all the evil the catholic church has wrought, the sight of that old fool wearing the feathers was priceless, now it’s time for natives to cash in.

  4. How can a religion like this which is responsible for such grievous crimes over so many centuries even stay extant?

  5. “Americans have always been genocidal enjoying killing from afar”. Philip Slater
    100 years of genocidal wars to obliterate culture/language resulting from their refusal to become slaves…the racist invasion of Kore, Vietnam Iraq Afghanistan Serbia evidence the amerikan conscience
    of course only the nazis were obsessed w race—Soviets, europeans, Asians, South Amerikans, Marxists emphasized social progress and class struggle—the anglosphere has resurrected nazi ideology….it was Sacvan Bercovitch that reinterpreted the adventures of huckster’s Finn” Huck was morbid and haunted; he was a racist precisely because he did follow his conscience”

  6. I don’t think the Pope apologized for the Church, but rather “Many members” which is not the same as the institution. This is likely deliberate. The Doctrine of Disovery allowed Europeans to steal indigenous lands [especially those with natural resources], and it still stands today.

    The Vatican, Anglican Church and others hold documents which tell the whole story. These are still not being released.

    Until there is action, these apologies ring hollow. Stolen land must be returned. The complete story must be told: not just the Canadian story, but every country where churches ran indigenous schools. Criminal charges must be laid against any living participants. Restitution to survivors must be paid promptly. The Catholic Church as an institution must be held accountable. A UN genocide investigation should be pursued as well.

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