Pope Francis has said an upcoming visit to Canada will be a “pilgrimage of penance” that he hopes will help to heal wounds left in Indigenous communities by Roman Catholic priests and nuns who ran abusive residential schools that sought to forcibly assimilate children.
During the July 24 to July 30 trip, Francis is set to make good on a promise to apologise to victims on their home territory for the church’s role in the state-sanctioned schools, which aimed to erase Indigenous cultures, ripping about 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Metis children from their homes, and subjecting some to abuse, rape and malnutrition in what a Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission dubbed in 2015 “cultural genocide”.
“Unfortunately in Canada many Christians, including some members of religious orders, contributed to the policies of cultural assimilation that in the past gravely damaged native populations in various ways,” Francis said at his weekly address to people in St Peter’s Square on Sunday.
“I am about to make a pilgrimage of penance, which, I hope that with the grace of God can contribute to the path of healing and reconciliation that already has been started,” he said.
The schools were at the centre of discussions between the pope and Indigenous envoys who visited the Vatican in March and April. The meeting resulted in a long-sought apology from the pope, but Indigenous leaders also pushed for the pope to visit their homeland.
Recalling the meetings, Francis said on Sunday he had expressed “my pain and solidarity over the evil that they endured”.
The 85-year-old pontiff will visit Edmonton, Maskwacis, Lac Ste Anne, Quebec, and Iqaluit in Canada’s Arctic territory. He is scheduled to deliver nine homilies and addresses and say two masses.
Thousands are believed to have died while attending the residential schools, which operated between 1831 and 1996.
The discoveries of unmarked graves at former residential school sites across Canada in recent years have prompted renewed calls for accountability – and an apology from the Catholic Church in particular.
Last year, the remains of 215 children were found at the former Indian Residential School in Kamloops in the western Canadian province of British Columbia. The school closed in 1978.
In early July, the Canadian government and the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) reached a $15.5bn final settlement on compensation for Indigenous children who were discriminated against for years in the provision of government services.