By Amy Goodman & Denis Moynihan
Pope Francis toured Canada this week in “a penitential pilgrimage.” He’s apologizing for the Catholic Church’s role in Canada’s brutal “Indian Residential School” system, which lasted from 1831 until 1998. An estimated 150,000 indigenous children were taken from their families by the government and placed in distant boarding schools, forced to assimilate into the dominant white, Euro-Canadian culture. Sixty percent of these boarding schools were run by the Catholic Church. Children were prevented from speaking their native languages and compelled to embrace Christianity and a strict educational and work program intended to “civilize” them. Children suffered sexual and physical abuse; initial analysis estimates over 3,200 died at the schools; another 1,000 died after being sent home, grievously ill.
The search for the remains of these children, often in unmarked and forgotten cemeteries across Canada, has accelerated in the past year, after several burial sites were identified with potentially hundreds of corpses of residential school students. This scandal has spilled over the border, provoking a long overdue assessment of the government-run Native American residential schools in the United States, where indigenous children also suffered atrocities and death during their forced assimilation.
“The residential schools were catastrophic…this was a disastrous error,” Pope Francis said on Monday in the First Nations community of Maskwacis, near Edmonton, Alberta. “It is painful to think of how the firm soil of values, language and culture that made up the authentic identity of your peoples was eroded, and that you have continued to pay the price of this…I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the indigenous peoples.”
Evelyn Korkmaz, who spent four years at St. Anne’s Indian Residential School in Fort Albany, Ontario and now helps other survivors, responded,
“I’ve waited 50 years for this apology, and finally, today, I heard it. Unfortunately, a lot of my family members, friends, classmates and members of my community that went to residential school were not able to hear it because they had passed on through suicide, alcohol addiction, and other substance abuse, because they could not endure or live with the trauma that they endured in these residential schools.”
Pamela Palmater, a Mi’kmaq lawyer and professor, speaking on the Democracy Now! news hour, offered a different view of the Pope’s apology tour: “It was pretty much what I feared, that it would be one of those very carefully worded apologies where the Church itself, the organization, doesn’t take responsibility for their policies and practices, the cover-ups, knowing that there were sex offenders all over the world.”
Between 2008 and 2015, a nationwide Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada documented the abuses of the Indian Residential School system, from archival sources as well as from survivors.
In addition to a genuine apology from the Pope, Pamela Palmater and other indigenous activists are demanding a formal Vatican rejection of the Doctrine of Discovery, which dates from a “Papal bull” issued in the 1450s.
“It basically gave power to the European nations to go forth and conquer any lands where Christians don’t inhabit, so-called terra nullius, where no one is living, a no-man’s land,” Palmeter explained. “We know it wasn’t just an authority to go forth and take those lands. It was to use whatever force necessary to rid the lands of any non-Christians all over North and South America. Millions and millions upon millions were killed, tortured, abused, exploited, put into slavery.”
The Doctrine of Discovery was embraced by Thomas Jefferson as a basis for early U.S. colonialism and the violent expropriation of indigenous lands. This eventually included a system of oppressive boarding schools. Between 1819 and 1969, the U.S. government operated 408 Indigenous Residential Schools in 37 states or territories.
In 2021, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first indigenous cabinet secretary in U.S. history, launched a study of these schools. The initial report, issued last May, confirms “that the United States directly targeted American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian children in the pursuit of a policy of cultural assimilation that coincided with Indian territorial dispossession. It identifies the Federal Indian boarding schools that were used as a means for these ends, along with at least 53 burial sites for children across this system–with more site discoveries and data expected.”
The genocide against this hemisphere’s indigenous people is a foundational crime of the United States and Canada. The Pope’s “penitential pilgrimage” across Canada should renew a complete accounting of the residential school system in pursuit of justice and reparations for its survivors and impacted indigenous communities.