Pope Francis apologizes for Catholic Church’s role in Canadian residential school system

Pope Francis has apologized and asked for forgiveness for the Catholic Church’s role in the Canadian residential school system, and vowed to visit Canada to deliver the apology in person to survivors.

After private meetings between Pope Francis and First Nations, Inuit and Metis delegates this week, all parties met the Pope at the Vatican on Friday.

Speaking in Italian, the pontiff asked for God’s forgiveness for the “deplorable conduct” of members of the Catholic Church, recognizing the wrongs done to Indigenous people in residential schools.

“I want to say to you with all my heart: I am very sorry,” Francis said during the final meeting with delegates.

“And I join my brothers, the Canadian bishops in asking your pardon.”

The Pope added that he was “indignant” and “ashamed” of the abuses suffered in Canada’s church-run residential schools, and said Catholic educators in these facilities disrespected Indigenous identity, culture and spiritual values.

“It is chilling to think of determined efforts to instill a sense of inferiority, to rob people of their cultural identity, to sever their roots, and to consider all the personal and social effects that this continues to entail: unresolved traumas that have become inter-generational traumas,” the Pope said in Italian.

Many of the delegates who were in the room are survivors of residential schools. The Pope spoke in Italian as attendees read his remarks in a pamphlet with an English-language translation. After receiving the apology, witnesses describe seeing tears rolling down the cheeks of some in attendance.

In addition to the apology, Pope Francis vowed to travel to Canada. An official date has not been set for the trip, but the Pope said he hoped to visit Canada “in the days” around the Feast of Saint Anne, which falls on July 26 and is dedicated to Christ’s grandmother.


A papal apology for the church’s role in facilitating Canada’s residential schools was one of the 94 recommendations outlined by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which from 2008 to 2015 examined the record of the country’s residential schools. Many residential school survivors have said an apology would be more meaningful if Pope Francis travelled to Canada for it.

Approximately 190 people, including delegates, survivors and supporters, gathered Friday to share spiritual practices, such as prayers and traditional songs, and hear the Pope’s words during the hour-long meeting. Delegates also presented the Pope with gifts, including handmade snowshoes and a bound book of stories from Metis residential school survivors, as a sign of peace and an example of Indigenous culture persisting despite assimilation attempts.

In return, the Pope gave all three Indigenous groups a bronze olive branch as a sign of peace and reconciliation, according to the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. The Pope also returned a First Nations cradle board, which the delegation had left with him overnight on Thursday.

In meetings earlier this week, the groups of Indigenous delegates shared stories of loss and abuse, and told the Pope they wanted him to understand how they’ve been shaped by the legacy of the Catholic Church and Canada’s residential school system, as well as the impact of that system on subsequent generations.

The delegates have also asked the Catholic Church to repair the damage its members caused with residential schools by rescinding the doctrine of discovery, return Indigenous lands and artifacts, release institutional documents, and provide compensation and support healing for survivors

Beginning in the late 1800s, approximately 150,000 Indigenous children were separated from their families and forced to attend residential schools, facilities that aimed to replace their languages and culture with English and Christian beliefs. The schools were set up by the Canadian government and most were run by the Catholic Church.

Numerous cases of abuse and at least 4,100 deaths have been documented at the former residential schools, where thousands of confirmed and unmarked graves have been found. Canada’s last residential school closed in 1996.


Since the late 1980s, several apologies have been made by different church groups, including former prime minister Stephen Harper in 2008 and the RCMP in 2004 and 2014 — each acknowledging their role in the operation of residential schools. However, this is the first official papal apology.

Speaking to reporters in Saint Peter’s Square following Friday’s address from the Pope, Assembly of First Nations delegation lead Chief Gerald Antoine said the apology was “long overdue” and a “historical first step” towards reconciliation, but “only a first step.”

“Today is a day that we’ve been waiting for, and certainly one that will be uplifted in our history,” Antoine said.

“The next step is for the Holy Father to apologize to our family at their home… they also seek the words of apology at home.”

Antoine said Friday’s apology was an important moment for Indigenous delegates to feel “seen” as humans by the Catholic Church – something that was not their experience while attending residential schools.

“Our message to the world is that we are all in this together. We’re human beings. Let’s work together to humanize the way we need to with Mother Earth,” Antoine said.

During a virtual press conference, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he looks forward to Pope Francis coming to Canada to deliver an apology in person, adding that Friday’s address would not have been possible without the “tremendous amount of bravery and determination” of those who travelled to the Vatican to share their stories.

“This apology would not have happened without the long advocacy of survivors who journeyed to tell their truths directly to the institution responsible, and recounted and relived their painful memories,” Trudeau said.

“Today’s apology is a step forward in acknowledging the truth of our past in order to right historical wrongs, but there’s still work to be done.”


Speaking Friday during a press briefing following Pope Francis’ apology, archbishop Richard Smith said the Catholic Church remains committed to the process of releasing institutional records, adding that the church continues to want to demonstrate it is committed to “this path of healing.”

Smith added that the Pope is “preparing” to provide further commitments from the Catholic Church to repair the damage caused by residential schools, including denouncing the doctrine of discovery, but said such commitments are “still in the works.”

As part of a settlement involving the Canadian government, churches and residential school survivors in 2006, Canada paid billions of dollars in repatriations to former students of the facilities. In September 2021, Canadian Catholic bishops committed to add $30 million more in repatriations over the next five years.

Phil Fontaine, former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations and one of the delegates who met with the Pope this week, told CTV News Channel there are “a significant number of issues that need to be addressed” by the Catholic Church in continuing to work towards reconciliation, including the return of Indigenous artifacts and revoking the doctrine of discovery.

“We presented our case, a very strong case to the Holy Father and I would expect that the church would be interested, in fact, responsive… to sitting down with us and figuring out how those matters would will be addressed going forward,” he said Friday in an interview from Rome.

Fontaine added that the decision on where Pope Francis will visit when he comes to Canada will be coordinated with Indigenous leaders, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Vatican.

Fontaine was previously part of an Assembly of First Nations delegation that met with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican in 2009. At the time, Benedict only expressed his “sorrow at the anguish caused by the deplorable conduct of some members of the church,” but did not apologize.

Fontaine said recent events, such as the discovery of unmarked graves at the sites of former residential schools, increased pressure for an official papal apology.

“You have the pivotal moment with the discovery of unmarked graves, the TRC with 94 calls to action… Those played an important part in this historic day,” he said.

Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, said during Friday’s press briefing that there are many actions the Catholic Church needs to take to ensure “there is truth, there is justice, there is healing and there is reconciliation” for it’s role in Canada’s residential school system.

He added that individual survivors and intergenerational survivors “will have very different feelings and perspectives” about the Pope’s apology, but noted such an address is “part of a larger picture.”

With files from The Canadian Press, The Associated Press, as well as writers Daniel Otis and Jennifer Ferreira

ANALYSIS: Witnessing history in Vatican City

By: Donna Sound, CTV National News and Indigenous Circle Reporter

It was an offer I couldn’t and would never refuse: A ticket to one of the most iconic places on the planet to witness history being made.

Walking up those opulent steps and into a grand room at the Vatican was almost surreal. The room had frescos thousands of years old. In it, a group of real faces who never thought in their wildest dreams they would ever be there with Pope Francis.

He changed the world today with these four words: “I am very sorry.”

He said those words to a room of about 100 people, most of whom are residential school survivors. They’ve been waiting all their lives to hear that apology, so they could begin to heal from life-long trauma.

Pope Francis read his address in Italian. His demeanour humble, caring, and sorrowful. He knew he needed to do the right thing. This time, the world was watching.

There were tears of joy, disbelief, shock and pride. Survivors finally got the recognition they’d been longing for. The horrid abuses they‘d suffered wasn’t because of anything they did. They were, after all, children and babies, as young as four – robbed of their parents love and put into a life of hell on Earth.

Now, a new day and a new road to what they call reconciliation. No culture on this Earth can thrive without another powerful word, respect.

Now Indigenous people of Canada can truly thrive again, knowing, they matter.

Pope Francis, I imagine, will sleep good tonight knowing he did the right thing.

His final words and the only ones he spoke in English: “I pray for you. You pray for me. Bye, bye.”

If you are a former residential school student in distress, or have been affected by the residential school system and need help, you can contact the 24-hour Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419, or the Indian Residential School Survivors Society toll free line at 1-800-721-0066.

Additional mental-health support and resources for Indigenous people are available here.

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