Pope Francis asked for forgiveness for the harm done to indigenous Canadians by Catholics in a Wednesday address before top government officials and representatives of the indigenous peoples in Canada.
“I express my deep shame and sorrow, and, together with the bishops of this country, I renew my request for forgiveness for the wrong done by so many Christians to the indigenous peoples,” the 85-year-old pontiff said, citing the Catholic Church’s role in running many of the country’s government-sponsored residential schools for indigenous children.
These residential schools, in place until the late 1990s, worked to stamp out aspects of native culture, language, and religious practice. Former students have described mistreatment and even abuse at the schools.
Pope Francis condemned the “deplorable system” that “separated many children from their families” in an address before Canada’s governor general, Mary Simon, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, civil and religious authorities, representatives of the indigenous peoples, and members of the diplomatic corps in Québec.
“The Christian faith has played an essential role in shaping the highest ideals of Canada, characterized by the desire to build a better country for all its people,” he said Wednesday. “At the same time, it is necessary, in admitting our faults, to work together to accomplish a goal that I know all of you share: to promote the legitimate rights of the native populations and to favor processes of healing and reconciliation between them and the nonindigenous people of the country.”
After meeting with representatives of the indigenous peoples in Rome and, now, in Canada, Pope Francis looked to the future.
“The time we spent together made an impression on me and left a firm desire to respond to the indignation and shame for the sufferings endured by the indigenous peoples,” he said, “and to move forward on a fraternal and patient journey with all Canadians, in accordance with truth and justice, working for healing and reconciliation, and constantly inspired by hope.”
He cautioned against forms of colonization, particularly “ideological colonization,” that he said is practiced today.
“In the past, the colonialist mentality disregarded the concrete life of people and imposed certain predetermined cultural models,” he said, “yet today, too, there are any number of forms of ideological colonization that clash with the reality of life, stifle the natural attachment of peoples to their values, and attempt to uproot their traditions, history, and religious ties.”
He tied this kind of colonization to what he called “cancel culture.”
“This mentality, presumptuously thinking that the dark pages of history have been left behind, becomes open to the ‘cancel culture’ that would judge the past purely on the basis of certain contemporary categories,” he said. “The result is a cultural fashion that levels everything out, makes everything equal, proves intolerant of differences, and concentrates on the present moment, on the needs and rights of individuals, while frequently neglecting their duties with regard to the most weak and vulnerable of our brothers and sisters.”
He identified the vulnerable as the poor, migrants, the elderly, the sick, and the unborn — or “the forgotten ones in ‘affluent societies’” who “are cast aside like dry leaves to be burnt.”
“Instead, the rich multicolored foliage of the maple tree reminds us of the importance of the whole, the importance of developing human communities that are not blandly uniform, but truly open and inclusive,” he said, referencing the tree leaves holding national significance in Canada.
Throughout his speech, he repeatedly drew from the imagery of the maple leaf.
“How much we need to listen to and dialogue with one another, in order to step back from the prevailing individualism, from hasty judgments, widespread aggressiveness and the temptation to divide the world into good people and bad!” he exclaimed at one point. “The large size of the maple leaves, which absorb polluted air and in turn give out oxygen, invite us to marvel at the beauty of creation and to appreciate the wholesome values present in the indigenous cultures.”
He added: “They can inspire us all, and help to heal harmful tendencies to exploitation.”
The pope repeatedly highlighted indigenous Canadians as a model to follow in the care and protection of the family, making the world a better place for future generations, and “recalling the importance of social values.”
“The Catholic Church, with its universal dimension, its concern for the most vulnerable, its rightful service to human life at every moment of its existence, from conception to natural death, is happy to offer its specific contribution,” he added.
The past, he said, should inform the future.
“May the wrongs that were endured by the indigenous peoples serve as a warning to us today, lest concern for the family and its rights be neglected for the sake of greater productivity and individual interests,” he said.
He concluded with a message of unity.
“It is by working in common accord, hand in hand, that today’s pressing challenges must be faced,” he said. “I thank you for your hospitality, attention and respect, and with great affection I assure you that Canada and its people are truly close to my heart.”
Pope Francis’ trip continues Thursday, July 28. He will celebrate Mass at the National Shrine of Saint Anne de Beaupré. Later that day the pope will pray Vespers with bishops, priests, deacons, consecrated persons, seminarians, and pastoral workers at the Cathedral of Notre Dame.