(Spanish CNN) — Pope Francis is already in Canada and has presented, on behalf of the Catholic Church, a long-awaited apology for the indigenous communities, victims of more than a century of abuse and a policy aimed at eliminating their culture through boarding school system for kids.
For 165 years, these residential schools forcibly separated First Nations, Métis and Inuit children from their families, subjecting them to malnutrition and physical and sexual abuse in what Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada called “cultural genocide” in 2015. More than 4,000 indigenous children were killed.
The first boarding school for natives began operating in Canada in 1831. Its antecedents, however, date back to the early 17th century. At that time and until the 19th century, the religious orders ran missionary schools for native children which would be the precursors of this system of boarding schools.
In a 2008 apology speech by then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the politician said the schools were meant to “separate and isolate children [indígenas] from the influence of their homes, families, traditions and cultures, and to assimilate them into the dominant culture”, under the assumption that indigenous cultures were inferior and unequal.
This objective was not hidden. In fact, in 1876, Indigenous Law was introduced to the country, the purpose of which was to eradicate First Nations culture in favor of assimilation into Euro-Canadian society. A few words spoken in 1920 by Duncan Campbell Scott, Deputy Superintendent of the Department of Indian Affairs, show the extent to which this opinion prevailed.
“I want to get rid of the Indian problem… Our aim is to continue until there is not an Indian in Canada who has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no no more Indian question, no Indian department, that is to say the whole point of this bill,” the politician said at the time, proposing that attendance at boarding schools be compulsory for all children of the First Nations ages 7-16.
What was the role of the Catholic Church?
At least 130 schools were in operation across Canada between the late 19th century and 1996, many of which were run by the Catholic Church.
In fact, the school system relied almost exclusively on churches to provide teachers, administrators, and religious instructors.
The discovery of unmarked graves in “Canada’s Alcatraz”
The horror of these schools returned to the headlines exactly one year ago, in July 2021, when the Penelakut tribe of British Columbia announced that they had found 160 “undocumented and unmarked” graves in the islands. Gulf in the south of the province, where a boarding school known as “Canada’s Alcatraz” had been established.
The find added to 1,000 other unmarked graves that had been found between May and July at former residential schools in that province and Saskatchewan.
The investigations continued and this year the existence of other burials was revealed.
Francis’ “Penitential Pilgrimage” to Canada
The Vatican called Francis’ trip a “penitential pilgrimage.”
In April, the pope told indigenous leaders at the Vatican that he felt “pain and shame for the role that various Catholics, especially those with educational responsibilities, have played in all these things that hurt them, in the abuses they have suffered and in the lack of respect for their identity, their culture and even their spiritual values”.
The Oblates, who helped run many residential schools, said they intended to reveal all historical records of their involvement. “We deeply regret our involvement in residential schools and the harm they have caused to Indigenous peoples and communities,” the groups said in a statement.
The Church’s apology would be consistent with Call to Action number 58 set out in the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canadawhich was created to document the impact of Canadian residential schools on students and their families.
And it is, as Cowessess boss Cadmus Delorme said in 2021, “one of the many steps on the healing journey”.
With information from Rob Picheta, Livia Borghese, Cecilia Armstrong, Dave Alsup, Rebekah Riess, Nicole Chavez and Paula Newton.
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