'I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples'
WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
Pope Francis has apologized for members of the Catholic Church who co-operated with Canada's "devastating" policy of Indigenous residential schools, saying the forced assimilation of Indigenous peoples into Christian society destroyed their cultures, severed their families and marginalized generations in ways still being felt today.
"I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples," Francis told thousands of Indigenous people, including many survivors, who converged Monday in Maskwacis, Alta.
"Here from this place, associated with painful memories, I would like to begin what I consider a pilgrimage. A penitential pilgrimage," he said, speaking from the site of the former Ermineskin Indian Residential School, one of the largest in Canada.
To applause from those gathered, the Pope repeatedly begged forgiveness for actions of the past, supported by many members of the Church, which created the "disastrous error" and "deplorable evil" of residential schools.
He said the memories of the children who never returned from residential schools has left him with a sense of "sorrow, indignation and shame."
The policies of assimilation marginalized Indigenous people, robbed them of their language and culture, and indelibly affected relationships between parents and their children and grandparents and their grandchildren, he said.
Francis's words on Monday went beyond his earlier apology for the "deplorable" acts of missionaries and instead took responsibility for the church's institutional co-operation with the "catastrophic" assimilation policy, which Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission has said amounted to a "cultural genocide."
He said his apology is only the first step in making amends with Indigenous people in Canada and that a serious investigation must be conducted into the facts of what occurred in the past.
Following the Pope's long-awaited apology, Chief Wilton Littlechild — a former commissioner of the TRC — gave the pontiff a traditional Indigenous headdress. A smile beamed across the pontiff's face as it was placed on his head.
Earlier, Littlechild said he hoped the Pope's visit will reflect true healing and hope for Indigenous people in Canada.
After arriving at the small Alberta prairie community, the Pope visited the Ermineskin Cree Nation Cemetery for a moment of silence, prayer and reflection. Organizers say there are likely remains of residential school students among the graves.
Arriving under a steady drizzle, busloads of school survivors, Indigenous elders and their family members were helped to find seats under tents near the site of the former residential school, now largely torn down.
One of the hosts of the event, Chief Randy Ermineskin of the Ermineskin Cree Nation, waited for the Pope in a nearby parking lot and took stock of the historic import of the day.
"My late family members are not here with us anymore, my parents went to residential school, I went to residential school," Ermineskin told The Associated Press, dressed in a traditional feathered Cree headdress.
"I know they're with me, they're listening, they're watching."
Five teepees are set up at the site, with one of them representing the entrance to the former school.
In the afternoon, Francis is set to speak with Indigenous people and parish members at the Sacred Heart Church in Edmonton.
Later in the week, the Pope plans to host a large outdoor mass at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton and take part in a pilgrimage in nearby Lac Ste. Anne, before travelling to Quebec City and Iqaluit.
Francis arrived in Canada on Sunday for a six-day trip that is aimed at reconciliation with Indigenous people.
Francis committed to the Canadian tour on April 1, after meetings over several days with First Nations, Inuit and Métis groups at the Vatican. At the time, Francis apologized for the deplorable conduct of some church members involved in residential schools and promised to visit Canada.
Indigenous delegates had told the Pope they wanted an apology on Canadian soil.
An estimated 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend residential schools in Canada, where neglect and physical and sexual abuse were rampant. More than 60 per cent of the schools were run by the Roman Catholic Church.
The Pope told reporters before his plane landed in Edmonton that the visit must be handled with care.
"I hope, with God's grace, that my penitential pilgrimage might contribute to the journey of reconciliation already undertaken. Please accompany me with prayer," said a message on the Pope's Twitter account.