TORONTO – Pope Benedict XVI told a private meeting in a private meeting that he was being abused by aboriginal children on church-run boarding during a visit to the Vatican by a delegation of First Nations members in 2009 to meet with Pope Benedict XVI. At school they were forced to study in Canada.
What was called an expression of deep, heartfelt remorse at the time was not enough after the discovery of nearly 200 unmarked and previously undocumented graves of children at Canada’s largest aboriginal boarding school in British Columbia last year – countless, one of a kind. Horrible sites all over the country.
Now tribal leaders are expecting nothing less than a public apology from Pope Francis, with government officials up to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau supporting their cause. To meet with survivors of First Nations, Metis and Inuit at the Vatican next week ahead of a visit to Canada later this year, Pontiff is likely to apologize for the church’s role in abusing boarding schools.
“We’re going there to give a voice to the voiceless,” said Gary Gagnon, who will represent the Metis people of mixed European and Indigenous descent in the delegation. Originally scheduled for last December, the tour was postponed due to the COVID-19 epidemic.
More than 150,000 Native children were forced to attend state-funded Christian schools from the 19th century to the 1970s in an effort to isolate them from their home and cultural influences, to convert them to Christianity and to assimilate them into mainstream society, which previous governments considered superior.
The government acknowledged that physical and sexual abuse was widespread, with students being beaten for speaking their mother tongue. That legacy of abuse and isolation has been cited by tribal leaders as a key factor in the epidemic rate of alcohol and drug addiction conservation.
About three-quarters of the 130 boarding schools were run by Catholic missionary congregations.
Last May, Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Nation announced that cemeteries had been discovered near Kamloops, British Columbia, using ground-penetrating radar. The sites have not yet been excavated, but indigenous groups across the country have renewed a national census as they search for graves in other residential schools.
“That’s exactly what Kamloops did,” said Phil Fontaine, who was national head of the Assembly of First Nations in 2009 and led the delegation that met with Benedict. “It caught the attention of a lot of people.”
Fontaine, 77, said she and her classmates were physically and sexually abused when she was a boy at the Fort Alexander Indian Residential School in Manitoba, where she was forbidden to visit family for two hours on Sundays, even if she was nearby.
“Finally, Canadians are saying, ‘Oh, so it’s true. That’s what happened at the boarding school,'” he said. “And I think that’s a lot of pressure on the Catholic Church and the Vatican.
Fontaine is calling for the Pope’s visit to Canada, which the Vatican has announced but has not yet set a date for, to take place in indigenous lands.
A National Truth and Reconciliation Commission has a record of at least 51 children dying at Columbus School between 1915 and 1963.
Nationwide, the commission identified about 3,200 confirmed deaths in residential schools in poor condition, some from tuberculosis, but noted that the cause of death was not recorded for about half of them. The standard practice was not to send students’ bodies back to their community; The commission says the government wants to reduce costs.
The church hopes next week’s Vatican encounter will be a historic moment for all Canadians, but “especially our first nation and our Metis,” said Calgary Bishop William McGratan, vice president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“They will bring their own story and the story of their community,” McGratan said. “Pope Francis and the bishops will listen and respond to ensure that we are committed to this reunion.”
Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued an official amnesty for residential schools in Parliament in 2008, calling them a tragic chapter in Canadian history and the policy of forcible assimilation.
As part of the settlement of a lawsuit involving the government, churches and an estimated 90,000 surviving students, Canada has provided billions of dollars in compensation to the indigenous community.
The Catholic Church, for its part, has paid more than $ 50 million and now wants to add another $ 30 million over the next five years.
The United, Presbyterian and Anglican Churches have already apologized for their role.
Residential schools in Canada were based on similar facilities in the United States, where the Catholic and Protestant communities operated more than 150 boarding schools between the 19th and 20th centuries, according to researchers.
Although the issue has received relatively little attention in the United States, Fontaine believes a day of reckoning is approaching for Canada’s southern neighbor.
The goal of the residential school system, he argued, is nothing less than a cultural genocide.
“They have decided that the best way to do this is to enroll children in residential schools, to ban them from speaking indigenous languages, to forget their culture,” Fontaine said. “In fact, in line with federal government policy, embrace all that was not in terms of culture and tradition.”
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