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The apology addressed the church-run residential schools which abused thousands of children in Canada. The Pope asked the survivors of the system for forgiveness as he called the organisation a “disastrous error”.
For the first official event of the one-week tour, the Pope visited the community of Maskwacis, Alberta on Monday after landing in the area on Sunday.
The Pontiff said: “I am sorry. I ask for forgiveness, in particular, for the ways in which many members of the church and of religious communities cooperates not least through their indifference, in projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation promoted by the Governments of that time which culminated in the system of residential schools.”
The apology was widely anticipated by the nearly 2,000 survivors of the school system which has led the religious leader to feel “indignation” and “shame” from the agonising memory of the treatment of Indigenous children.
The Pope blamed the “colonising mentality” which fuelled the system which had “catastrophic” impacts on generation on generation of Indigenous people.
He added: “I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples.”
The survivors of the scheme and the Pope congregated at the Powwow Arbour which is designated for First Nations community gatherings and celebrations.
RoseAnne Archibald, national chief of The Assembly of First Nations, was also in attendance alongside Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Governor General Mary Simon, and some federal lawmakers.
Maskwacis also marks the site where the former Ermineskin Residential School stood between 1916 and 1975 which was one of the largest such schools in Canada.
It has been estimated that at least 150,000 Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and sent to attend schools such as Ermineskin which was run by the Catholic church.
Survivors of Ermineskin spoke of physical abuse and being punished for speaking in their mother tongue, also at least 15 children died while attending Ermineskin, including three of tuberculosis.
In 2008, the federal Government paid billions of Canadian dollars in compensation to survivors of the schools and apologised for setting up and running such schools.
The apology from the Pope is a landmark event as the Vatican repeatedly refused to apologise for years for its part in operating almost 130 schools in Canada.
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The Protestant and Anglican churches also ran such schools, but the majority was by the Catholic church.
Chief Greg Desjarlais of the Frog Lake First Nation in north Alberta and a school survivor told reporters: “I do know when two people have apologised, we feel better.
“But our people have been through a lot…Our people have been traumatised.
“Some of them didn’t make it home. Now I hope the world will see why our people are so hurt.”
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