The Pope has apologized for the Catholic Church’s role in the tragedy of residential schools – a move that residential school survivors have been awaiting for decades.

“I ask for God’s forgiveness and I want to say to you with all my heart, I am very sorry, and I joined my brothers, the Canadian bishops, in asking your pardon clearly,” Pope Francis told Indigenous delegates assembled at the Vatican on Friday. “The content of the faith cannot be transmitted in a way contrary to faith itself.”

“I also feel shame and I’m saying it now … for the role that the number of Catholics, particularly those with educational responsibilities, have had and all these things that wounded you [and] the abuse you suffered, and in the lack of respect shown for your identity and culture.”

This is the first time that a pope has issued a formal public apology to Indigenous people from Canada. Francis’s predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, did not issue one, even though he came under pressure from Indigenous survivors and families to do so.

Speaking from St. Peter’s Square after the meeting with Francis, with the sounds of drumming and singing behind her, Cassidy Caron, president of the Métis National Council, called the Pope’s words “historic – to be sure, they were necessary.”

She said she looks forward to a papal apology in Canada made to survivors and their families, and that there are more tangible steps that the church must take to repair the wounds. “Reconciliation did not start today with the Pope’s words of apology,” she said. “And it certainly doesn’t end here either.”

Calling it an emotional and difficult week of bringing the truth about the harms of the residential school experience to the Vatican, Natan Obed, lead Inuit delegate and president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, welcomed the Pope’s words.

“Pope Francis reflected upon the entirety of our message that we have brought forward,” he said. “And he did so in a way that really showed his empathy towards the Indigenous peoples of Canada. He also showed a willingness to do something that the Catholic Church has not done yet, which is to frankly and openly offer an apology.”

Gerald Antoine, lead First Nations delegate, NWT regional chief for the AFN, and residential school survivor, said, “We accept this apology as a gesture of good faith that acknowledges that he will come to our home, Turtle Island, and to formally apologize to all our family.”

It’s a historical first step, he said, “however, only a first step: more needs to be done,” with the next step being an apology to families in Canada.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission urged an apology in 2015 as part of its 94 calls to action. That call, No. 58, asked the Pope to issue an apology in Canada to survivors and communities for the church’s role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, sexual and physical abuse of children.

Friday’s apology doesn’t preclude another apology in Canada; the Pope has promised to come to Canada later this year.

The Pope hinted he would time his visit for the festival of St. Anne on July 26. “I think, for example, of the great veneration that many of you have for St. Anne, the grandmother of Jesus, and I hope to be with you on that day,” he said. “I will close by saying — until we meet again in Canada, where I will be able to better express to you my closeness.”

More than 150,000 Inuit, Métis and First Nations children were forced to attend the schools, in a government-backed system designed to strip them of their language, culture, and identity. More than 4,000 children died, according to the TRC, in what it has said amounts to cultural genocide.

In three private meetings with the Pope earlier this week, Indigenous peoples had urged him to apologize, and asked for reparations for the harms done, land to be returned and more supports in the search for unmarked graves.

The last meeting with Pope Francis mixed somber reflection and prayer with celebration and spectacle to cap off an historic and often poignant week along the route to truth and reconciliation.

All three Indigenous groups – Métis, Inuit and First Nations, plus seven Canadian bishops – met Francis in the Sala Clementina in the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace. The location spoke to the significance of the event – the sala, an enormous hall decorated with religious frescos, was built in the 16th century and is used by popes for meetings of absolute holy and administrative importance.

Almost 200 delegates and other participants, including musicians and dancers, opened the session with an expression of gratitude to the Pope for listening to the Indigenous stories of suffering and intergenerational trauma resulting from the government-funded, Catholic-run schools.

Francis wore his trademark simple white cassock while sitting on a white throne-like chair during the event.

A prayer by elder Fred Kelly, spiritual advisor to the Assembly of First Nations, followed in both English and the Nishnawbe language, along with prayers from the other Indigenous groups.

After Francis spoke, the celebratory cultural events began, including an Inuit drum dance, a performance by Métis fiddlers and First Nations’ dancers. The event will finish with gift giving by both sides, and a blessing from Francis.

Among the gifts presented to the Pope on Friday was a pair of traditional handmade snowshoes, brought by Adrian Gunner, Cree Nation Youth Grand Chief of northern Quebec. He walks in his grandfather’s footsteps: four decades ago, Cree Chief Billy Diamond presented a pair of snowshoes to Pope John Paul II, as he urged the pontiff to support Indigenous rights.

Following the apology, Francis presented golden olive branches, a symbol of peace and reconciliation, to representatives of the three Indigenous groups, and thanked them for their visit.

Former national Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Phil Fontaine accepted the gift, appearing happy to finally hear an apology. In 2009, Mr. Fontaine visited Pope Benedict, who only expressed sorrow and anguish at what the Church had done to Indigenous children. Mr. Fontaine was one of the first survivors to speak publicly about the sexual, physical and spiritual abuse endured by himself and thousands others.

Mr. Fontaine said he was not expecting to hear the words, ‘I’m sorry’ from Pope Francis but was pleasantly surprised.

He said it was beyond his expectations to “hear him say how he felt shame and guilt for what the church did to our people,” he said. “And that he was prepared to come to Canada to meet with our people and visit our communities and speak directly to Indigenous peoples, especially those that were hurt by the experience. So, it’s a pretty big day.”

The long journey for the former National Chief of the AFN to hear the long-awaited apology, has spanned three decades. He was one of the first survivors to speak publicly about the abuses endured by him and others, and later negotiated the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement, but failed to get an apology in a 2009 visit with Pope Benedict.

“This is the culmination of years of work, if I can describe it as work,” he said. “But it was a passion of mine for such a long time, and we finally achieved the success that we were hoping for, and many, many people that were part of this journey. So, I’m feeling pretty good.”

“This moment, I think, reflects the determination and the courage of many that kept up the fight over the years and it’s really about never losing hope.”

“I’m very happy,” he said.

The Globe and Mail, April 1, 2022