Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has asked Pope Francis to apologise for the Catholic Church’s role in what has been described as an act of “cultural genocide” that saw indigenous children forcibly removed from their families and made to attend Canadian boarding schools.
The request for an apology is a significant landmark in a long campaign fought by One Young World Counsellor and human rights campaigner Senator Murray Sinclair over the damage caused by the infamous residential schools system.
The Canadian leader met the Pope at the Vatican on Monday as part of his trip to Italy for the G7 summit. “I told him how important it is for Canadians to move forward on real reconciliation with the indigenous peoples and I highlighted how he could help by issuing an apology," said Mr Trudeau, who is also a One Young World Counsellor.
The residential schools were established in the 1880s to take children from their families and assimilate them into mainstream Canadian society. Some 150,000 aboriginal children were forcibly taken from their families, and sent to church-run boarding schools where they were forbidden to speak their languages or practice their cultures. The last school closed in 1996.
The request for a papal apology came as Amnesty International announced that its prestigious Ambassador of Conscience award for 2017 was being given to Canada's Indigenous Rights Movement, shared with the singer and refugee rights campaigner Alicia Keys. Senator Sinclair was named as one of six individual indigenous rights activists chosen to accept the award.
The One Young World Counsellor, who attended last year’s Summit in Ottawa and addressed a Special Session on peace and reconciliation, was chair of Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which gathered stories of residential school survivors. The Commission produced a 2015 report which recommended ways for the country to come to terms with the legacy of the schools system.
“The evidence is mounting that the government did try to eliminate the culture and language of Indigenous people for well over a hundred years.”
“The evidence is mounting that the government did try to eliminate the culture and language of Indigenous people for well over a hundred years,” Senator Sinclair told Canadian broadcaster CBC, prior to the Vatican meeting. “As commissioners we have concluded that cultural genocide is probably the best description of what went on here…they did it by forcibly removing children from their families and placing them within institutions that were cultural indoctrination centres.”
Senator Sinclair told the Globe & Mail newspaper in 2015 that it was crucial that the Prime Minister personally secured the apology from the Pope.
“That is a request that, we think, has got to come from the highest official in the country because it is almost a nation-to-nation request,” he said. “So I would hope that that request would be communicated at that level.”
In its 2015 report, the commission recommended that the Catholic Church issued a formal apology for its part in the residential school system. Similar apologies have been issued by Anglican, Presbyterian and United Churches, who along with the Catholic Church helped run the schools as joint ventures with the Canadian government.
In 2008, former Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued an apology on behalf of Canadians, calling it "a sad chapter in our history". A year later, Pope Benedict offered a personal apology to the Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations of Canada, Phil Fontaine, expressing his "sorrow at the anguish caused by the deplorable conduct of some members of the Church".
But the apology was not been accepted by the TRC as the meeting was private and the apology was not offered to the survivors of the school system.