QUEBEC CITY – Making his last stop on a penitential trip that has drawn mixed reviews from the Indigenous people he came to see, Pope Francis on Friday visit eda remote region near the Arctic Circle, where residential schools transformed life for the majority-Inuit population.
During the most somber overseas visit of his pontificate, Francis has offered a series of apologies this week for the cruelty of Canada’s residential school system, which to forcibly assimilate Indigenous children into Christian culture. Most of the schools were run by Catholic entities.
Many Indigenous people say they have been moved by the pope’s long-sought visit – particularly given the 85-year-old’s frailty and immobility. They say his willingness to say “I’m sorry” on Indigenous land is a crucial first step. But as the week has proceeded, he has faced growing criticism from Indigenous leaders, who say they’re still waiting for him to apologize for the Church as an institution.
“[The apology] fell short,” RoseAnne Archibald, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said in a TV interview this week. She was one of the Indigenous leaders who greeted Francis when he arrived in the country on Sunday.
Francis has apologized personally and on behalf of “many” individual bad actors, but not for the Church as a whole. Nor has he spoken about the aspects of the institution that might have allowed it to further a Canadian government policy that the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission said amounted to a cultural genocide.
For most of the 19th and 20th centuries, Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families to be placed in residential schools often hundreds of miles from their communities. They were forbidden from speaking their native languages or practicing their cultural traditions, and in many cases, were physically and sexually abused.
Murray Sinclair, the lawyer who chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said Francis’s words so far had a “deep hole.”
“It was more than the work of a few bad actors – this was a concerted institutional effort to remove children from their families and cultures, all in the name of Christian supremacy,” Sinclair said.
One of the primary Indigenous requests is for the Church to revoke papal decrees from the 1400s that provided religious backing for the conquest of Indigenous territory in the New World and elsewhere by Europeans.
Though Francis, the first pope from South America, has repeatedly denounced historic colonization and forced assimilation, he hasn’t directly discussed the Doctrine of Discovery, the policy that arose from those decrees. Before a Mass he celebrated Thursday at the Basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré outside Quebec City, two members of the Batchewana First Nation in Indigenous clothing unfurled a banner saying “Rescind the Doctrine.”
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a statement this week that he had discussed with Francis the need to address the Doctrine of Discovery, but he did not elaborate.
Several days before the trip, a Vatican spokesman said a “reflection” within the Holy See was underway.
Before leaving Quebec City on Friday, Francis struck a reflective tone in a morning meeting with around 20 Indigenous representatives. He said he had come as a “pilgrim, despite my physical limitations,” and that the stories he heard would always “be a part of me.”
“I dare say, if you will allow me, that now in a certain sense I also feel a part of your family, and for this I am honored,” the pope said.
“I am now returning home greatly enriched.”
Francis planned to be on the ground in Iqaluit later Friday for less than three hours, to address a group of young people and elders. The northernmost city in Canada is the capital of Nunavut, a territory straddling the Arctic Circle that’s three times the size of Texas but has a population of just 40,000.
Nunavut faces challenges both social and environmental. The suicide rate is multiples higher than the rest of Canada, and the climate is warming there significantly faster than the global average, melting permafrost and putting pressure on the water supply.
Francis has managed the Canada trip despite being nearly immobilized by knee pain. Leading up to the trip, organizers were worried the Vatican might cancel – as it had a planned papal visit this month to the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan.
In Canada, Francis has basically moved from one seat to the next – his popemobile, his Fiat 500, his wheelchair – relying on assistance any time he rises to his feet. The trip has proceeded at a notably slower pace than others during his pontificate. He has been holding roughly two events per day, rather than the usual four or five. In Quebec on Friday morning, he used a walker.
“It’s clear that he is making a sacrifice” to be in Canada, said one Indigenous attendee at Thursday’s Mass. “I want to hear about how the church will restore what it took,” she said.