By Ian Austen and Elisabetta Povoledo
Pope Francis is traveling to Canada this week to apologize to Indigenous communities for the Catholic Church’s role in the country’s notorious residential school system, where thousands of Indigenous children died, and countless others were sexually and physically abused.
The visit comes after years of pleas from Indigenous leaders and leading politicians for a Vatican apology about the schools, which were designed to erase Indigenous culture and language by forcibly separating children from their families to assimilate them into Western ways.
And some Indigenous leaders say it will fill in one of the biggest remaining pieces in Canada’s efforts at reconciliation over a brutal education system that a national commission declared to be a form of “cultural genocide.”
“Many of us have had thoughts about the Catholic Church for a long time, and this particular moment may sweep aside these doubts that have been there,” said Phil Fontaine, former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, who 32 years ago was one of the first Indigenous leaders to publicly describe the abuse he suffered at Catholic-run residential schools.
“To make it all work, you have to be able to forgive,” he added. “And that means you have to make peace with the church.”
But others, especially some younger Indigenous people, are greeting the pope’s visit with indifference.
“I don’t care about the pope. I’m very critical about the pope visit,” said Riley Yesno, 23, a doctoral student at the University of Toronto who is from Eabametoong First Nation in Ontario. “And I say that as somebody whose grandparents went to Catholic-run residential schools. I don’t see how any of these words that he’s going to say will actually fix the damage that the residential schools caused. I don’t know that it’ll bring healing for my grandparents.”
The Canadian government formally apologized 14 years ago for establishing the schools and has paid billions of dollars in reparations to former students. The Protestant churches that were also involved in the schools long ago followed suit.
The Catholic Church ran 60% to 70% of the roughly 130 residential schools under contract to the government. Yet the Vatican for years had repeatedly resisted calls for a papal apology.
That changed this year after a delegation representing Canada’s three largest Indigenous groups traveled to the Vatican in March to again press for an apology in Canada. The pope, who apologized at the Vatican, expressing “sorrow and shame” for the abuses Indigenous people endured, agreed to apologize in Canada, too.
The main focus of the pope’s visit is one of “healing and reconciliation” with Canada’s Indigenous communities, he said last Sunday. But Francis’ trip comes as the church finds itself struggling to remain relevant to its other Canadian followers.
Catholics remain the largest religious group in this predominantly Christian country, with about 38% of Canadians identifying as Catholic. Unlike some Protestant denominations that are in free fall, the share of people identifying as Catholic has undergone only a modest decline, from 43% in 1951. In a country with high levels of immigration, people who identify as Catholic are the largest group among newcomers.
But the number of Catholics who actively practice their faith has declined substantially in recent decades, according to surveys, particularly in the province of Quebec, where the church was once a powerful political force but where sales of unused churches are widespread.
For Francis, the six-day trip will mark the end of a long travel drought. It will be his first trip out of Rome since April, when he spent a weekend in Malta where he appealed for better treatment of migrants.
The Vatican abruptly postponed a six-day trip to Congo and South Sudan, scheduled to take place in early July, citing continuing problems with the pope’s knee that have made it difficult for him to walk. Francis also has sciatica, a chronic nerve condition that causes back, hip and leg pain. A year ago he underwent surgery to remove part of his colon, which kept him hospitalized for 10 days. He now regularly appears in public using a cane or seated in a wheelchair, and he has apologized for remaining seated during public audiences.
In Canada, although the pope will travel to two provinces and the Arctic community of Iqaluit, the trip does reflect his doctors’ orders to take it easier. Except for the final day of the visit, which will take him to Quebec, the pope will follow an uncharacteristically light schedule, with no more than one or two public events per day.
Vatican spokesperson Matteo Bruni said Francis was not expected to seek additional medical assistance on the trip. Circumstances, he added, will dictate whether the pope moves on foot or by wheelchair, or by using a cane or other supports. Francis may also make greater use of an open car, “so he can be close to people, and be seen.”
Francis will deliver his message of contrition at the small Cree First Nation in Alberta, at the site where a church-run residential school once stood.
From the 1880s through the 1990s, the Canadian government forcibly removed at least 150,000 Indigenous children from their homes and sent them to residential schools. Their languages, and religious and cultural practices, were banned, sometimes through violence.
A national Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded in 2015 that in addition to eradicating Indigenous culture, thousands of children died from various causes while attending the generally underfunded and overcrowded schools. Those causes included rampant disease, malnutrition, accidents, fires and abuse.
Historians are still trying to determine the number of students who died at the schools. Murray Sinclair, a former judge who led the commission, said he estimated that more than 10,000 children never returned home.
Physical and sexual abuse by Catholic brothers, nuns, priests and lay workers was widespread, according to records and testimony to the commission from more than 6,000 former students. The commission’s 92 recommendations included asking the pope to come to Canada to apologize directly to Indigenous people.
Exactly why Francis dropped the Vatican’s previous opposition to such an apology is unclear. But many Indigenous people attribute the change to a grisly finding announced just more than a year ago at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in the arid mountains of British Columbia’s interior. An analysis of ground-penetrating radar scans found evidence, consistent with the testimony of former students, that hundreds of students had been buried in unmarked graves on school grounds.
Similar searches are now taking place throughout the country and have revealed signs of well over 1,000 unmarked graves. Indigenous communities are grappling with the difficult question of whether to exhume those remains or leave them in place.
“It was a pivotal moment,” said Fontaine, the former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, who first sought an apology from Pope Benedict XVI during a Vatican meeting 13 years ago. “And it not only shocked Canadians, the eyes of the world then turned on Canada.”
Francis has called the trip to Canada a “penitential pilgrimage.”
The lack of a papal apology has been a source of tension between Catholic churches in Canada and Indigenous people. The churches have paid just 1.2 million Canadian dollars of a promised CA$25 million (about $929,000 of $19 million) in restitution. In the fall, the churches started a fundraising effort with a goal of CA$30 million (about $23 million).
Like many young Indigenous people, Yesno, the doctoral student, said she believed that the time for apologies and reconciliation gestures has passed, and that the government needs to return land to Indigenous communities, give them political autonomy over it and the financial means to run it.
“We’re more concerned with material transactions and material reparations,” Yesno said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.