Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he was disappointed by the refusal of Pope Francis to personally apologise for the role of the Catholic Church in abuse suffered by tens of thousands of Indigenous children at Canada’s infamous Indian residential schools.
“Obviously I’m disappointed with the Catholic Church’s decision not to apologise for their role in residential schools,” Trudeau told reporters, adding that he would continue pressing the pontiff for an apology.
It is estimated that more than 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Metis children were separated from their families and forced into residential schools run by the Catholic and Anglican churches on behalf of the federal government over much of the last century.
It was part of a deliberate policy of forced assimilation to “take the Indian out of the child.”
Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has called it “a cultural genocide.”
A papal apology was one of the 94 Calls to Action recommended by the commission on the road to reconciliation between Canada and its Indigenous population in 2015.
However, a letter released Tuesday by the president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) said Pope Francis could not personally apologise for residential schools.
“The Holy Father is aware of the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which he takes seriously,” said the letter from Bishop Lionel Gendron, president of the CCCB.
“As far as Call to Action #58 is concerned, after carefully considering the request and extensive dialogue with the Bishops of Canada, he [Francis] felt that he could not personally respond.”
Ted Quewezance, who was abused while attending a Catholic residential school, told CBC News he was disgusted with the pontiff’s stance.
“They haven’t changed their position from day one. And they never will. The only thing [the Church] could say is sorry he got caught, that’s all,” said Quewezance.
“They know they did wrong. When you do wrong, you apologise.”
The pontiff’s refusal to extend a personal apology has perplexed many Canadian Catholics, especially since Pope Francis has extended similar apologies for the treatment of Indigenous people in Latin America, as well as to victims of sexual abuse in Ireland.
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde said he too would be writing to Pope Francis to seek a meeting to discuss an apology.
“#FirstNations agree that acts of healing & reconciliation are important,” tweeted Bellegarde, whose organization represents more than 900,000 indigenous people living in 634 First Nation communities, cities and towns across Canada.
Reconciliation with Indigenous communities is one of the major goals of the Liberal government led by Trudeau.
The Liberals have invested billions of dollars towards programmes aimed at Canada’s Indigenous communities.
“Reconciliation is not just between government and Indigenous peoples, it’s between non-Indigenous Canadians and Indigenous peoples as well,” Trudeau said.
The residential schools, the last of which closed its doors in 1996, have left a devastating legacy in Canada’s Indigenous communities many of which still struggle to cope with the loss of language, culture and identity, high rates of suicide, substance abuse and incarceration.
No fewer than 3,200 Aboriginal children out of 150,000 who attended the infamous boarding schools died.
Many were buried in unmarked graves, according to the final report from the reconciliation commission.