Brittany Hobson and Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press
Posted on Wednesday, July 27, 2022 at 5:25 AM m. WBS
Last updated Wednesday, Jul 27, 2022 7:28 pm EDT
QUEBEC – Pope Francis on Wednesday expressed shame and regret for the role Catholic institutions played in the “deplorable” residential school system that sought to strip indigenous people of their language, culture and worldview.
Speaking at Quebec City’s historic Citadelle, Francis apologized for the damage caused by assimilation policies carried out in schools.
“In that deplorable system, promoted by the government authorities of the time, which separated many children from their families, different local Catholic institutions had a part,” Francis said.
“That is why I express my deep shame and pain, and together with the bishops of this country, I renew my request for forgiveness for the evil done by so many Christians to indigenous peoples.”
It is the second papal apology on Canadian soil for Francis, who is in the middle of a six-day tour that he described as a “pilgrimage of penance.” On Monday he apologized for the “evil committed by so many Christians against indigenous peoples” during a speech in Maskwacis, Alta.
The pope left Edmonton Wednesday morning and arrived in Quebec City in mid-afternoon, traveling to the Citadel of Quebec to meet privately with Governor General Mary Simon and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
In his speech, Francis said his time in Canada has left him with a “firm desire” to advance reconciliation and help heal the deep wounds of the past.
In a speech delivered in Spanish and translated into several languages, he said the church is committed to responding “adequately” to calls from Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which has examined abuses in residential schools and published recommendations to address it, and “recognize the rights of indigenous peoples.”
He added that the Church committed to promoting indigenous culture through “specific and appropriate forms of spiritual accompaniment that include attention to their cultural traditions, customs, languages and educational processes” in the spirit of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of indigenous peoples.
Before his speech, the Huron-wendat elder, Raymond Gros-Louis, presented the pontiff with a wild turkey feather and sweet grass.
Simon, speaking right in front of the pontiff, said the pope’s visit was an important step towards further dialogue and actions that will lead to real reconciliation.
“In fact, we look forward to hearing more about future actions by the church to continue this essential work,” said Canada’s first Indigenous Governor General, who delivered her address in English, French and Inuktituk.
A second apology from the pope had been a demand from some indigenous leaders in Quebec, who said they deserved to hear the pontiff apologize in their homeland.
Yet on the Plains of Abraham, where Francis greeted the public later Wednesday from his popemobile, those gathered before the address expressed mixed views on whether an apology would satisfy them.
There was a strong police presence on the premises, as concerts and other artistic performances took place throughout the afternoon. While the site’s capacity is more than 100,000 people, the crowd that had gathered just over an hour before the pope’s scheduled arrival was only a fraction of that number.
For residential school survivor Omer St-Onge, the pope’s visit represents a “small step” on a journey of healing.
But St-Onge, who hails from the Innu community of Uashat-Maliotenam on Quebec’s north coast, said before the pope’s speech that he expected more than an apology.
“It is time for the pope to decide to return artifacts to us, objects that were taken from us and that are all in the Vatican and in churches, documents about young people who died,” said St-Onge, whose birth name is Uapan Ushekatok.
Fabien Jaubert, also from Uashat-Maliotenam, said he had come to honor the memory of the survivors of the residential school, including his grandmother and aunts.
“I expect an apology from the Pope,” he said in an interview on the Plains of Abraham before the pontiff’s arrival. “I’d like to hear him do one on behalf of the church, rather than just certain actors.”
Among those present at the site was a group of indigenous protesters who walked 275 kilometers from the site of the former Pointe-Bleue residential school in the Mashteuiatsh Innu community in the Saguenay region of Quebec. The group, which started walking last Thursday, was greeted with applause when it arrived on stage.
Pointe-Bleue was the last of Quebec’s federally funded, church-run schools to close, in 1991. Chantal Niquay, who attended the school, described the march as “liberating” and said it was helping her heal from the scars of the past.
“I had my young children and I wasn’t totally there for them, but today I understand why. We give each other a lot of love,” said the 43-year-old woman.
After visiting the Plains of Abraham, the Pope will go to the residence of the archbishop of Quebec, where he plans to stay during his stay in the province.
On Thursday, Francis will celebrate Mass at the shrine of Ste-Anne-de-Beaupre, east of the city, and then attend vespers with church officials at the Notre-Dame Cathedral-Basilica of Quebec.
On Friday, he will make a short stop in Iqaluit before returning home to the Vatican.
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on July 27, 2022.
– With archives from Frederic Lacroix-Couture in Quebec City and Morgan Lowrie in Montreal