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Trudeau asks Pope to apologize for abuses in indigenous schools

Saskatchewan, March 1945 - Cree students and teacher in class at All Saints Indian Residential School. (BiblioArchives/Flickr)

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has asked Pope Francis to apologize for the role of the Roman Catholic Church in Canadian schools where indigenous children were abused for decades.

Starting in the 1880s, the Canadian government forced some 150,000 children to attend “residential schools” meant to strip them of their traditional cultures and assimilate them into mainstream society. In many of the schools, most of which were administered by Roman Catholic churches, students lived in substandard conditions and endured physical, emotional and sexual abuse.

The last school closed in 1996.

“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,” Trudeau said after meeting the pope at the Vatican on Monday as part of his trip to Italy for the G7 summit, reported BBC.

According to the news agency, the Vatican has not commented on the request, but called the talk “cordial” and that the conversation “focused on the themes of integration and reconciliation, as well as religious freedom and current ethical issues.”

Despite living in one of the world’s wealthiest countries, indigenous populations across Canada have for decades faced widespread impoverishment, inadequate housing, food insecurity, ill health, unsafe drinking water and high rates of unemployment. Aboriginal women, who only account for about 4 percent of Canada’s female population, represent nearly one in four female homicide victims in the country.

In opening mandatory residential schools, the Canadian government believed it could reduce such inequalities by teaching aboriginal children to adopt English, Christianity and Canadian customs. Students were discouraged and severely punished for speaking their first languages or practicing native traditions, and testimonies from surviving former students have described widespread neglect, starvation, physical and sexual abuse.

Although accurate records of such abuses are nonexistent or were destroyed, survivor testimonies estimate that sexual abuse rates were as high as 75 percent in some schools, and rates of physical harms are higher still. More than 3,000 student deaths have been attributed to these crimes, but it is likely that the number is higher because the government stopped recording indigenous students’ deaths in 1920.

Canada established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2008 in an effort to document and promote the extent and impact of residential school experiences. After seven years of hearings, and testimony from thousands of witnesses, the commission in 2015 produced the first report detailing the abuses committed during Canada’s “cultural genocide.”

“The Canadian government pursued this policy of cultural genocide because it wished to divest itself of its legal and financial obligations to Aboriginal people and gain control over their land and resources,” the report said.

At the report’s release, the commissioners called on Pope Francis to issue an apology within one year for the church’s role in the “spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse” of First Nations children.


About Author

Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email or see her latest work at