Pope Francis says pain of Canada's residential school survivors felt 'like slaps'

WATCH: Pope Francis says genocide happened at residential schools

Pope Francis said on Wednesday he felt the pain of survivors of Canada’s residential school system “like slaps” and that the Catholic Church has to face up to its responsibility for institutions that abused children and tried to erase indigenous cultures.

The pope dedicated his talk at his weekly general audience to his trip last week to Canada, where he delivered a historic apology for the Church’s role in the government-sanctioned schools, which operated between 1870 and 1996.

More than 150,000 indigenous children were separated from their families and brought to residential schools. Catholic religious orders ran most of them under successive Canadian governments’ policy of assimilation.

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The children were beaten for speaking their native languages and many were sexually abused in a system Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission called “cultural genocide.”

The pope met indigenous survivors throughout the trip and on the last day, mostly elderly school survivors in Iqaluit, capital of the isolated Arctic territory of Nunavut, told him their stories in a private meeting.

“I assure you that in these meetings, especially the last one, I had to feel the pain of these people, like slaps, how they lost (so much), how the elderly lost their children and did not know where they ended up, because of this policy of assimilation,” Francis said in unscripted comments.

“It was a very painful moment but we had to face up, we have to face up before our errors and our sins,” he said.

During the trip, the pope’s apologies evoked strong emotions and praise as a first step in reconciliation, but some survivors said they fell short of expectations and that he had not apologized clearly enough for the Church as an institution.

In an apparent attempt to answer the critics, he said on Wednesday that priests, nuns and lay Catholics had “participated in programs that today we understand are unacceptable and contrary to the Gospel. That is why I went to ask forgiveness in the name of the Church.”

Some were also heartened when the pope, speaking to reporters on the plane taking him back to Rome on Saturday, branded what happened at the schools as “genocide.”

Francis, who is suffering from a knee ailment, walked the some 20 meters (yards) to his seat on the stage of the Vatican’s audience hall using a cane and at the end remained standing to greet some participants. He later used a wheelchair when aides moved him among the crowd.

He mostly used a wheelchair during the Canada trip, including during his in-flight news conference on the return flight.

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Liberals will seek action after apology

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller says a lack of action would be the worst thing to follow an apology for residential schools as Pope Francis reflects on his historic journey to Canada.

Miller said Wednesday there is a renewed focus on recognizing that what happened in residential schools was genocide after the Pope used the term last week following his visit to Alberta, Quebec and Nunavut.

Miller added there must be unanimous consent from members of Parliament in the House of Commons in order to have the Canadian government adopt that language when describing the institutions.

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“The worst thing you could have after such a historic apology … is for nothing to happen afterward,” Miller said in Peepeekisis Cree Nation, in southeastern Saskatchewan.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said he continues to accept the conclusion from the 2019 inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls that “what happened amounts to genocide.”

Governments are bad at affecting culture change, Miller said, but added there is a desire across society for people to inform themselves about the history of residential schools.

“I’m hopeful, with the visit of the Pope, that that will turn people’s minds that don’t think about these issues every day,” he said.

(Reporting by Philip Pullella, Editing by William Maclean and Frank Jack Daniel)

— with files from The Canadian Press

© 2022 Reuters

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