Pope Francis says he is sorry for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in cultural destruction and forced assimilation of Indigenous people, which culminated in residential schools.
Francis apologized Monday in front of residential school survivors and elders in Maskwacis, Alta., south of Edmonton after visiting the site of the former Ermineskin Indian Residential School.
He received applause from many in the crowd of thousands.
"I am sorry. I ask forgiveness, in particular, for the ways in which many members of the church and of religious communities co-operated, not least through their indifference, in projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation promoted by the governments of that time, which culminated in the system of residential schools," Francis said through a translator.
Francis spoke in Spanish, his first language, and it was translated into English by a priest. Translations were also available in several Indigenous languages.
The Pope said he feels sorrow, indignation and shame. He said begging forgiveness is the first step and there must be a serious investigation into what took place.
Francis also called the overall effects of the policies linked to residential schools "catastrophic."
An estimated 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend residential schools in Canada, where neglect and physical and sexual abuse were rampant. More than 60 per cent of the schools were run by the Catholic Church.
Earlier in the day, Francis held his face as he was brought in a wheelchair to a graveyard in Maskwacis. Organizers said there are likely remains of residential school students among the graves.
The Ermineskin school was one of the largest residential schools in the country. Five teepees were set up at the location for the Pope's visit — four representing the nations of the land and the fifth as symbol of the entrance to the former school.
Organizers said sacred fires were also burning in communities throughout the country in solidarity.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Gov. Gen. Mary Simon, as well as other political and Indigenous leaders, were at the event.
Francis was set to speak later Monday with Indigenous Peoples and parish members at the Church of Sacred Heart in Edmonton.
Later in the week, the Pope plans to host a large outdoor mass at the city's football stadium and take part in a pilgrimage in nearby Lac Ste. Anne, before travelling to Quebec City and Iqaluit.