1 of 4 | Pope Francis boards a flight bound for Canada on Sunday in Rome, Italy. The five-day trip is the first papal visit to Canada in 20 years. Photo by Vincenzo Pinto/EPA-EFE
July 25 (UPI) -- Pope Francis on Monday said he was "deeply sorry" for decades of physical and sexual abuse and suppression faced by Indigenous children at Catholic schools in Canada.
Francis apologized for how many Christians "regrettably" supported "the colonizing mentality of the powers that oppressed the Indigenous peoples," according to the Vatican-run news service Vatican News.
"I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples," Francis said.
The remarks were among the pope's first public comments on the abuse at the schools, where an estimated 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend from 1847 to 1947. More than 60% of the schools were run by the Roman Catholic Church. The last school closed in 1997.
The schools, funded by the Canadian government, were created to assimilate indigenous peoples into the dominant Canadian culture.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, which was organized as part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, issued a report in 2015 finding that at least 3,200 children were reported to have died over the 140 years that the schools operated.
Francis said Monday that "the overall effects of the policies linked to the residential schools were catastrophic" while calling the system a "disastrous error" that was "incompatible" with Christian teachings.
"We want to walk together, to pray together and to work together, so that the sufferings of the past can lead to a future of justice, healing and reconciliation," Francis said.
Francis, speaking to around 2,000 indigenous people gathered in Maskwacis Park near Edmonton, told the crowd that it is necessary to remember the "devastating experiences" of those who suffered in the residential schools.
"I think back on the stories you told: how the policies of assimilation ended up systematically marginalizing the indigenous peoples," Francis said.
"How also through the system of residential schools your languages and cultures were denigrated and suppressed; how children suffered physical, verbal, psychological and spiritual abuse; how they were taken away from their homes at a young age, and how that indelibly affected relationships between parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren."
Francis said that further steps are needed to assist the survivors of the residential schools recover from their trauma.
He also called on Christians to "grow in the ability to accept and respect the identity and the experience of the Indigenous peoples."
Before his remarks, Francis was greeted by Cree Chief Wilton Littlechild who expressed deep appreciation for "the great personal effort" the pope made to visit members of the First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities "in their homeland."
Littlechild fitted Francis, who arrived at the event in a wheelchair, with a headdress after his speech as the crowd erupted in applause, The New York Times reported.
The pope was also expected to visit the former Ermineskin Indian Residential School south of Edmonton on Monday.
Students are seen at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada, in 1937. A mass grave was recently found at the school's former site that contained the bodies of more than 200 children. The school operated from 1890 through 1978. File Photo by National Center for Truth and Reconciliation/EPA-EFE
Francis arrived in Edmonton on Sunday and was greeted by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Governor-General Mary Simon. He is expected to continue to meet with the leaders of indigenous groups this week.
"I hope that this visit is the beginning of a change in history, a change in the way business is going to be done, and a way for us to begin our healing journey," Treaty Six Grand Chief George Arcand Jr. told CBC News.
"More importantly, I asked the Pope to walk with us and create this new road that needs to be created."
Elder Fernie Marty of the Sacred Heart First Peoples Church in Edmonton said it was important for Pope Francis to be focused on creating an atmosphere of healing during the visit to Canada.
"It's exciting and a little nerve-wracking with all the media and stuff, but most of all I'm good with everything," Marty said according to Vatican News. "Him being here in Canada where all the atrocities happened; that's is very, very important."
The last papal trip to Canada occurred when Pope John Paul II made a visit in July 2002.