MASKWACIS, Alberta — The first step of Pope Francis’ “penitential pilgrimage” to Canada involved him returning two pairs of children’s moccasins.
The little shoes were not among the Indigenous artifacts held in the Vatican Museums, but rather reminders that Chief Marie-Anne Day Walker-Pelletier of the Okanese First Nation in Saskatchewan had left with Pope Francis in March so he would think and pray about the children who went to residential schools and, especially, about those who never returned home.
On the treaty land of the Ermineskin Cree Nation, Samson Cree Nation, Louis Bull Tribe and the Montana First Nation, near the former site of one of Canada’s largest residential schools, Pope Francis said, “I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples.”
“The first step of my penitential pilgrimage among you is that of again asking forgiveness, of telling you once more that I am deeply sorry,” the pope said July 25.
“I am sorry,” he said again. “I ask forgiveness, in particular, for the ways in which many members of the church and of religious communities cooperated, not least through their indifference, in projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation promoted by the governments of that time, which culminated in the system of residential schools.”
The pope spoke in Spanish. When his words of apology were read in English, the crowd responded with applause.
Pope Francis’ meeting with more than 2,000 residential school survivors, community elders and knowledge keepers, their family members and mental and emotional support staff was held at the Muskwa, or Bear Park, Powwow Grounds under a persistent drizzle.
Canada’s governor general, Mary Simon, and prime minister, Justin Trudeau, were in attendance. But the dignitaries were the pope and Indigenous chiefs from across Canada who made a grand entrance, carrying staffs decorated with eagle feathers and wearing “war bonnets.”
The local master of ceremonies explained that the chiefs must be warriors who defend the Indigenous people, language, customs and children.
Before the pope arrived, Ruby Rose Henry of the Tla’amin Nation warmed up her drum and voice by a fire. She hoped to sing the “Wild Flower Song” for the pope.
When government officials would come into the village to take children to the residential school, she said, “the children would run and hide.” When the officials would leave, “the children would sing this song so the parents would know they were not kidnapped.”
The pope had begun his visit meeting the pastoral staff and a few parishioners at Our Lady of Seven Sorrows Church before stopping to pray in the Ermineskin Cree Nation Cemetery and then going, by wheelchair, to the site of the former Ermineskin Indian Residential School.
Five teepees were erected on the site — four of them to represent each of the nations that call Maskwacis home, and the fifth to mark the school.
Pope Francis had described his visit to Canada July 24-29 as a “penitential pilgrimage” to ask forgiveness for the trauma inflicted on Indigenous children by too many of the priests and nuns who ran about 60% of the schools for the Canadian government.
The government now estimates at least 150,000 First Nation, Inuit and Métis children were taken from their families and communities and forced to attend the schools between the 1870 and 1997. At least 4,120 children died at the schools, and several thousand others vanished without a trace.
As the meeting with the pope began, dozens of people carried a long red banner through the crowd. The banner bore the names of each of the 4,120 deceased children and the school where they died.
Students at the schools were forbidden to speak their native languages or practice their traditions. The government provided so little financing that the students often were malnourished. And many were emotionally, physically or even sexually abused.
The discovery of unmarked graves and of possible burial grounds at several sites across Canada in 2021 increased attention on the residential-school legacy and increased pressure on Pope Francis to apologize on Canadian soil for what members of the church had done.
Ernest Durocher, a member of the Métis Nation Saskatchewan and a survivor of the Ile-a-la-Crosse Residential School, traveled to Maskwacis with his wife, also a survivor. He sat alone outside the powwow grounds for a while, just thinking, he said.
“I hope to hear an apology from the pope,” he said.
Emily McKinney, 21, a member of the Swan Lake First Nation, traveled to Maskwacis from the Treaty 1 territory in Manitoba, where she is chair of the Treaty 1 Youth Council.
“I hope to hear a sincere, genuine apology for those who need it to heal from intergenerational trauma,” she said.
The schools’ policy separated parents and children, she said. “It wasn’t natural, but by force, and for seven generations! There are huge, traumatic effects.”
“These kids were raised in institutions. How were they supposed to know how to raise their families with love and kindness and our teachings?” she asked.
At the powwow grounds, Pope Francis acknowledged the church’s complicity in the “deplorable evil” of suppressing native languages and cultures, the destruction of family and community bonds and the trauma endured by the children at the schools and often passed on to their children and grandchildren in the form of a lack of affection or actual abuse.
Cree Chief Wilton Littlechild, 78, an Ermineskine residential school survivor who had traveled to Rome in March to meet Pope Francis, welcomed the pope to his home.
Littlechild, a lawyer and politician, told the pope that as a member of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he had heard “nearly 7,000 testimonies from former students of residential schools” across Canada. The people gathered at Maskwacis, he said, represented all of them.
After Pope Francis spoke, Gerry Saddleback offered an “honor song” in Cree. The Canadian organizers said the song is a way of showing “openness and, for some, acceptance of the Holy Father’s apology and (is) an invitation to all those present, in their own way and according to their own personal timeline, to seek to accept that same invitation toward forgiveness.”
The pope promised the church’s cooperation in further investigating what occurred at the schools and to walk alongside survivors in their journey toward healing.
“On this first step of my journey,” the pope said, “I have wanted to make space for memory. Here, today, I am with you to recall the past, to grieve with you, to bow our heads together in silence and to pray before the graves.”
“In the face of evil, we pray to the Lord of goodness,” he said. “In the face of death, we pray to the God of life.”