Pope Francis in Canada: Penitential pilgrimage ends in Iqaluit, Nunavut, amid criticism

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QUEBEC CITY — Making his final leg of a penitential journey that drew mixed reviews from the Indigenous peoples he came to see, Pope Francis will visit a remote region near the Arctic Circle on Friday, where residential schools have transformed the lives of the majority Inuit population.

In the bleakest foreign visit of his pontificate, Francis this week issued a series of apologies for the cruelty of Canada’s residential school system, which sought to forcibly assimilate Indigenous children into Christian culture. Most schools were run by Catholic entities.

Many locals say they are moved by the Pope’s long-awaited visit, especially given his 85-year-old age. fragility and immobility. They say his willingness to say “I’m sorry” on Indigenous lands is a crucial first step. But as the week progressed, he faced growing criticism from indigenous leaders, who say they are still waiting for him to apologize for the church as an institution.

Pope apologizes for ‘the wrong done by so many Christians’ in Canadian residential schools

“[The apology] fell short,” said RoseAnne Archibald, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, in a television interview this week. She was among the indigenous leaders who welcomed Pope Francis when he arrived in the country on Sunday.

Francis apologized personally and on behalf of “many” individual bad actors, but not for the church as a whole. Nor did he speak about aspects of the institution that might have enabled him to advance a Canadian government policy that the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission said amounted to cultural genocide.

For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and placed in boarding schools, often hundreds of miles from their community. They were forbidden to speak their mother tongue or practice their cultural traditions, and in many cases they were victims of physical and sexual abuse.

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Murray Sinclair, the lawyer who chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said Francis’ words so far had a “deep hole”.

“It was more than the work of a few bad actors — it 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 main native demands is that the church revoke the papal decrees of the 1400s that provided church support for the conquest of native territory in the New World and elsewhere by Europeans.

Although Francis, South America’s first pope, repeatedly denounced historical colonization and forced assimilation, he did not directly discuss the Doctrine of Discovery, the policy that flowed from these decrees. Before a mass he celebrated Thursday at the Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré basilica outside Quebec City, two members of the Batchewana First Nation in native dress unfurled a banner saying “Repeal the doctrine.”

Pope Francis visits a Quebec that is rapidly shedding its Catholicism

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.

A few days before the trip, a Vatican spokesman said a “reflection” within the Holy See was underway.

Before leaving Quebec on Friday, Francis struck a reflective tone during an early morning meeting with about 20 Indigenous representatives. He said he came 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 allow me, that now, in a certain sense, I also feel part of your family, and for that I am honored,” the pope said.

“I now go home very enriched.”

Residential schools prohibited Aboriginal languages. The Cree want theirs back.

Francis planned to be on the ground in Iqaluit later Friday for less than three hours, speaking to a group of youth and elders. Canada’s northernmost city 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 social and environmental challenges. The suicide rate is several times higher than the rest of Canada, and the climate there is warming much faster than the global average, melting permafrost and putting pressure on water supplies.

Francis made the trip to Canada despite being nearly immobilized by knee pain. Before the trip, organizers feared the Vatican might cancel – as it had planned a papal visit this month to the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan.

In Canada, Francis essentially moved from seat to seat – his popemobile, his Fiat500, his wheelchair – relying on help every time he got up. The trip took place at a markedly slower pace than others during his pontificate. It hosts about two events a day, instead of the usual four or five. In Quebec on Friday morning, he used a walker.

“It’s clear he’s making a sacrifice” to be in Canada, said an Aboriginal man. “I want to know how the Church is going to restore what it took,” she said.

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