Canadian MPs urge Pope Francis to apologize for state-funded indigenous assimilation program

Canadian MPs urge Pope Francis to apologize for state-funded indigenous assimilation program
Canadian lawmakers have asked the Pope to issue an official apology to its aboriginal peoples, whose native traditions have diminished over generations, partly due to Catholic education in so-called 'residential schools.'

In an overwhelming 269-10 vote, the Canadian House of Commons adopted a non-binding motion calling on Pope Francis to come to Canada and apologize to the victims of the church-run 'residential schools' on behalf of all Catholics. Canadian lawmakers also want the Vatican to compensate the survivors and disclose any paperwork pertaining to the government-funded places of learning.

In the 19th century, the government of Canada developed a boarding school system to force the "aggressive assimilation" of indigenous Canadian tribespeople into the modern society of the time. The task of these government-funded institutions, which later became known as the 'residential schools', was to force the local youth to learn English or French and to adopt Christianity and Canadian customs so that, over generations, newly adopted lifestyles would squeeze out native traditions and customs.

In practice, the government-sponsored program, administered by a number of Christian denominations, turned into a nightmare for its young aboriginal subjects. Severe punishment was enforced against those students who tried to practice their native language or traditions. In addition to physical and emotional ill-treatment, sexual abuse also flourished in 'residential schools'. About 150,000 children were forced to attend these schools, the last of which closed down only in 1996. Overall, about 130 schools engaged in the practice over the two centuries. The Catholic Church ran 72 percent of ‘Indian’ centers of learning in Canada.

To put things right the government of Canada issued an apology. In 2008, the government also established the Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC) to investigate crimes committed under federal watch. Furthermore, in 2007, Ottawa approved a $1.9-billion compensation package for the residential school survivors. Anglican, Catholic, United and Presbyterian churches also agreed to devise a plan to compensate their former pupils.

All of the Christian denominations involved in the government program over the years also apologized for their role in the indigenous schooling system. However, the Catholic Pope did not. In 2009, Francis’ predecessor Pope Benedict XVI expressed his "sorrow" for the abuse and "deplorable" treatment of the aboriginal students but failed to issue a direct apology. The issue was also repeatedly brought up with Pope Francis, the last time in May 2017, by the Canadian PM Justin Trudeau.

In March, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops said Pope Francis "felt he could not personally respond" to issue an apology, even though the Pontiff expressed regret for past wrongs.

In an April letter addressed to parliamentarians, the Bishops explained that the "Catholic Church as a whole in Canada was not associated with the residential schools."

"To suggest that the Catholic community has not accepted responsibility for its involvement in residential schools is simply inaccurate. The Catholic Church has apologized in the way it is structured," the letter said, noting that 50 autonomous "Roman Catholic Entities" which were hired by the Canadian government to run the schools had collectively issued a public apology in 1991.

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