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Explained: Why did Pope Francis apologise to Indigenous people of Canada?

The pope was speaking at the Apostolic Palace in front of an audience consisting of delegates from Canada’s three largest Indigenous groups – the Metis, Inuit and First Nations communities – who had come to Rome to seek an apology.

Indigenous delegates from Canada's First Nations pose for a photo with Pope Francis during a meeting at the Vatican. (Reuters)

Pope Francis apologised for the Roman Catholic church’s involvement in Church-run residential schools that abused Indigenous children for over 100 years. He said he was hoping to visit Canada in July to express regret and apologise for the “deplorable” abuses suffered by Indigenous children in the country.

The pope was speaking at the Apostolic Palace in front of an audience consisting of delegates from Canada’s three largest Indigenous groups – the Metis, Inuit and First Nations communities – who had come to Rome to seek an apology and ensure that the Catholic church commits to repairing the damage.

What did Pope Francis say?

The pope apologised to families of Indigenous children, many of whom were found to be buried where Church-run schools were. Until September last year, more than 1,300 unmarked graves were discovered on grounds where these schools once stood.

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The pope said, “For the deplorable behaviour of those members of the Catholic Church, I ask forgiveness from God and I would like to tell you from the bottom of my heart that I am very pained.”

“I feel shame – sorrow and shame – for the role that a number of Catholics, particularly those with educational responsibilities, had in all these things that wounded you, in the abuses you suffered and in the lack of respect shown for your identity, your culture and even your spiritual values,” added the pope.

The church-run schools

Around 150,000 Indigenous children in Canada were taken away from their families and forcefully sent to church-run schools where they endured abuse, both physical and sexual. These children were taken away from their communities and families to be “culturally assimilated”.

Canadian Prime Minister Just Trudeau in a statement issued on Friday said, “Canada’s history will forever be stained by the tragic reality of the residential school system, which forcibly separated at least 150,000 Indigenous children from their families and communities, often at great distances, where they were prohibited from practising their culture and traditions, and speaking their languages… Last year, the findings of unmarked graves at the sites of former residential schools across the country forced Canadians to reflect on our country’s failures and their impacts that continue to be felt today.”


A First Nation Indigenous group revealed last year that 215 bodies of children as young as three years were found at Kamloops Indian Residential School. Another discovery, almost a month later, revealed 751 unmarked graves, mostly of children, in the Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan. A week after this discovery, it was found out that 182 unmarked graves were present on the grounds of St. Eugene’s residential school in Cranbrook, which was opened in 1890.

In total, 4,117 deaths of children belonging to Indigenous communities were documented in the last year.

It has been reported that in these schools, children were beaten, forced to practise Christianity, and not allowed to speak their native languages.

From left, Gerald Antoine, First Nations NWT Regional Chief, Natan Obed, President of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami delegation, and Cassidy Caron, President of the Metis community, walk in St. Peter’s Square, at the Vatican, after their meeting with Pope Francis, Friday, April 1, 2022. (AP)

A report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up by the Canadian government states that more than 6,000 children were estimated to have died because of the abuse by Church-run residential schools. The Commission had earlier sought an apology from the Church for its involvement in the torture of Indigenous children.

The Canadian bishops’ conference had apologised to the Indigenous community of the country in September last year when the graves of children were found.

Most of these residential schools operated between the 1880s and 1990s and were majorly run by Catholic churches.

The 2016 census by the Canadian government revealed that 1,673,785 Indigenous people were living in Canada. Out of this, 977,230 were First Nations people, 587,545 were Métis, and 65,025 were Inuit. Indigenous people accounted for 4.9 per cent of the total population in 2016.

What was the residential school system and how did it start?


In the 1880s, the then Canadian prime minister John A. Macdonald had asked politician and journalist Nicholas Flood Davin to analyse schools set up for Indigenous children in the United States. Based on a report submitted by Davin, Macdonald had set up residential schools in Canada for Indigenous children.

Although the order to officially start these schools came in 1883, this isn’t when the residential school for Indigenous children came into being for the first time. As per the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, which was set up in 2008 by the Canadian government as a part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, “The first church-run Indian Residential School was opened in 1831.”


Mohawk Indian Residential School, which has been known to be the first residential school in Canada, started operating in 1813 in Brantford, Ontario.

In 1876, The Indian Act was enacted that described who all came under Indigenous communities and established legal and land rights, among others, for Indigenous communities. It was under this Act that children were taken away from their families and sent to institutions.


In 1883, Macdonald authorised the setting up of residential schools in western Canada. By the 1950s, residential schools had spread out all across the country. Secretary of State for the Provinces Sir Hector Langevin had told the Parliament, “In order to educate the children properly we must separate them from their families. Some people may say this is hard, but if we want to civilize them we must do that.”

An Indigenous artist from Canada performs in St. Peter’s Square, at the Vatican, Friday, April 1, 2022. (AP)

It has been found that at least 139 residential schools were operating between the 1800s and 1990s. In 1907, a medical inspector, Dr P.H. Bryce, had ruled that the health conditions of children in residential schools in Canada were a “national crime”.

In 1920, the Indian Act was amended to make the attendance of residential schools compulsory for children aged 7 to 15. Even many cultural practices of the Indigenous community were banned under the Act.

The schools are known to have been extremely overcrowded and even underfunded. Most of these heavily relied on funding from Churches.

Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which ran from 2008 to 2015, has said in a statement that these schools were “a systematic, government-sponsored attempt to destroy Aboriginal cultures and languages and to assimilate Aboriginal peoples so that they no longer existed as distinct peoples.”

The TRC has also said that the residential schools intended to carry out cultural genocide. Children were punished in residential schools for speaking their own languages, the teachers were not held accountable for how they treated children and the level of education was below average.

A statement issued by the government of Canada, states, “During the years that the system was in place, children were forcibly removed from their homes and, at school, were often subjected to harsh discipline, malnutrition and starvation, poor healthcare, physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, neglect, and the deliberate suppression of their cultures and languages. Thousands of children died while attending residential schools, and the burial sites of many remain unknown.”

The Canadian government and Indigenous communities on Pope’s apology

Canadian Prime Minister Just Trudeau issued a statement on Pope Francis’s apology stating, “I acknowledge His Holiness Pope Francis’ apology to Indigenous Peoples for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in operating the residential school system in Canada. Today is about the Survivors, their families, and those who never came home…This apology would not have happened without the Survivors who told their truths directly to one of the institutions responsible, and recounted and relived their painful memories. For decades, First Nations, Inuit, and Métis have been calling on the Pope to recognize the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse their children endured while attending these residential schools. For decades, they have been waiting for an apology.”

Trudeau further added, “Today’s apology is a step forward in acknowledging the truth of our past. We cannot separate the legacy of the residential school system from the institutions that created, maintained, and operated it, including the Government of Canada and the Catholic Church.”

Indigenous artists from across Canada perform in St.Peter’s Square, at the Vatican, Friday, April 1, 2022. (AP)

President of the Métis National Council Cassidy Caron said, “The pope’s words today were historic to be sure. They were necessary and I appreciate them deeply.”

As reported by CBC News, President of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami Natan Obed said, “Today we have a piece of the puzzle…We have a heartfelt expression from the church that was delivered by Pope Francis in an empathetic and caring way.”

Have the Indigenous communities been abused elsewhere?

An inquiry conducted by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission in Australia has revealed that there was a forcible separation of Indigenous children – belonging to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities – between 1910 and 1970.

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“The effects of such removal were, for most victims, negative, multiple and profoundly disabling; Removal laws were racially discriminatory, and genocidal in intent; For many children removed there were breaches of fiduciary duty and duty of care, as well as criminal actions.”

Last year, the Australian government had agreed to pay around $280 million to the survivors who had endured the abuse of the system.

According to another Human Rights report of 1997, similar to Canada’s residential schools, Indigenous children in Australia were abused too,

First published on: 02-04-2022 at 18:44 IST
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