The Pope Apologized for Residential Schools, But Still Owes Survivors Millions

Pope Francis said he felt “shame” for the abuses carried out against Indigenous children by Catholic educators.
Pope Francis apologizes to Indigenous delegation
The final audience stands with Pope Francis and members of the Indigenous delegation where the Pontiff delivered an apology for the Catholic Church’s role in Canada's residential school system. Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Vatican Media

More than 20 years after Canada’s last residential school closed its doors, Pope Francis has apologized to Indigenous peoples for the Catholic Church’s role in the abusive school system. 

Pope Francis issued the apology Friday to a delegation of Metis, Inuit, and First Nations people who travelled from Canada to the Vatican. 

“I ask for God’s forgiveness and I want to say to you with all my heart, I am very sorry, and I joined my brothers, the Canadian bishops, in asking your pardon clearly,” the pope said.


He said that he felt “shame” for the “all these things that wounded you, in the abuses you suffered and in the lack of respect shown for your identity, your culture and even your spiritual values.” The pope described the conduct of many Catholic educators at the schools as “deplorable.” 

More than half of Canada’s residential schools were run by the Catholic Church from the 1880s to the late 1990s. The schools saw an estimated 150,000 First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children ripped from their homes and subjected to widespread physical and sexual abuse, neglect, and punishment for expressing Indigenous languages and identity. 

Last year, the issue was thrust into the spotlight after the Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc First Nation confirmed more than 200 unmarked graves at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia. So far, more than 4,000 unmarked graves have been confirmed—many believed to have belonged to children—though that number is expected to climb to at least 10,000. 

“This has been a very difficult week of bringing the truth of our residential school experience, the truth that the harms that the Catholic Church have done to Inuit communities here directly to the Vatican and to the Holy Father himself,” said Inuit leader Natan Obed at a press conference in the Vatican after the apology. 


The apology fulfilled one of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action, though the vast majority of them—there are 94 in total—have not been fulfilled.  

Dene National Chief Gerald Antoine, who was part of the delegation, said the apology is “only a first step” and that the pope must now apologize to residential school survivors and their family members in Canada; the Pope is expected to visit Canada in July. 

While Anglicans, Presbyterians, and the United Church have issued official apologies, as have some local Catholic dioceses in Canada, the pope has remained a holdout until this week. According to the Globe and Mail, the delegates also asked for the Catholic church to return Indigenous lands, pay reparations, and help uncover more unmarked graves. 

Speaking to Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, Niigan Sinclair, an assistant professor of Native Studies at the University of Manitoba said without more action, the pope’s apology is an “empty gesture.” 

Sinclair said there are four actions the church must now take: pay the $60 million owed via the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement; return stolen land; release documents and stolen Indigenous artifacts; and commit to a large-scale investigation into past and present church abuses. 

“Because the church is so present in many of our communities, something has to be done at a global level because the fact is that the church simply cannot be trusted to investigate itself,” he said. 

The Roman Catholic Church is one of the richest institutions in the world, with the Vatican alone worth more than $4 billion. 

—with files from Anya Zoledziowski