Pope Francis apologizes for abuse at Indigenous schools, but the pain remains for many

Pope Francis continues his week-long tour of Canada where he’s apologizing for the Catholic Church’s role in running residential schools — very similar to ones across the United States — that tried to eradicate Native cultures. While the pope’s apology was welcomed, Indigenous leaders and former students say it’s only the first step toward healing a painful past. William Brangham reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Pope Francis traveled to Quebec today to meet with Canada's prime minister and its first indigenous governor general.

    It's part of his weeklong tour of Canada where he is apologizing for the Catholic Church's role in running residential schools very similar to ones across the United States that tried to eradicate Native cultures.

    While the pope's apology was welcomed, as William Brangham reports, indigenous leaders and former students say it is only the first step toward healing a painful past.

  • William Brangham:

    Where the Catholic Church once exploited and denigrated indigenous culture, indigenous leaders this week offered the pope a symbol of that culture.

    Survivors of Canada's Catholic boarding schools, now grown and gray, carried a red cloth with the names of more than 4,000 indigenous students who died or disappeared in those places. In the Native Maskwacis community, the Roman Catholic leader issued a historical apology.

    Pope Francis, Leader of Catholic Church (through translator): I am here because the first step of my penitential pilgrimage among you is that of again asking forgiveness for the ways in which many members of the church cooperated in projects of cultural destruction, which culminated in a system of residential schools.

  • William Brangham:

    Survivors of those schools shared some of the lingering impacts they have endured.

  • Margareth MARY O’BRIAN, Resident School Survivor:

    I went to the residential school in Norpos (ph). And I went through a lot of stuff. And I lost all my family.

    Phil Fontaine, Former National Chief, Assembly of First Nations: We have been pressing for a papal apology for years and years.

  • William Brangham:

    Phil Fontaine is a Canadian indigenous leader who, starting at the age of 6, spent 10 years in the residential school system.

    Back in the early 1990s, on containing Canadian TV, Fontaine was one of the very first to publicly describe the abuse he suffered.

  • Phil Fontaine:

    If we took an example, my grade three class, if there were 20 boys in this particular class, every single one of them, the 20, would have experienced what I experienced.

  • Question:

    But are you saying every one of 20 was sexually abused?

  • Phil Fontaine:

    They have experienced some aspect of sexual abuse.

  • William Brangham:

    From the 1880s through much of the 20th century, more than 150,000 indigenous children across the country were forcibly taken from their parents and sent to these so-called residential schools.

  • Phil Fontaine:

    We lost our languages. I entered speaking only Ojibwe when I — my first day of residential school. I understood a bit of English.

    You learned through the people that ran these schools to consider yourself inferior to nonindigenous people, to white people, that we weren't as good. Fortunately, in my case, I have had many, many opportunities to expand my education.

  • William Brangham:

    To unlearn some of those lessons that were pressed into very young you?

  • Phil Fontaine:

    Absolutely, to learn that I wasn't, as we were called so often, savage. It takes a lifetime in some situations to unlearn all of that nonsense, because that's what it is.

    Heather Bear, Vice Chief, Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations: Imagine if all your children were taken, little children being abused, crimes against children. It's horrendous. It's things we want to forget.

  • William Brangham:

    Heather Bear is vice chief of the Federation Of Sovereign Indigenous First Nations, which represents 74 first nations in the province of Saskatchewan.

    She attended this residential school in the 1970s, when they started transitioning from the church to indigenous control.

  • Heather Bear:

    I expect some accountability, and that's what the apology means. So it gives me relief that — to know that we have gone this step of an apology. Now, what's the next step?

  • Stephen Harper, Former Canadian Prime Minister:

    The treatment of children in Indian residential schools is a sad chapter in our history.

  • William Brangham:

    The steps toward a papal apology have been long and painful.

    In 2008, then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper, on behalf of the Canadian government, formally apologized to former indigenous students and established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It documented the experiences of more than 6,000 children.

    In 2015, the commission concluded that — quote — "Children were abused physically and sexually, and they died in the schools in numbers that would not have been tolerated in any school system anywhere in the country or in the world."

    Over the last year, across various school sites, archaeologists have discovered hundreds of unmarked graves, prompting calls for an investigation.

  • Phil Fontaine:

    To identify who is buried where, we will need to access records. And the Catholic Church kept meticulous records.

  • William Brangham:

    The Catholic Church ran about 60 percent of the schools, but, for decades, it resisted calls that it apologize.

    Fontaine himself met with Pope Benedict in 2009, but it wasn't until this year at another meeting that Pope Francis apologized and pledged to do it again in Canada.

    Does it frustrate you that it has taken so many years for this to happen?

  • Phil Fontaine:

    Persistence is so important. You just can't give up.

  • Heather Bear:

    They need to do a lot of thinking and planning on how they are going to make amends and fix some of the harm.

  • William Brangham:

    Fontaine says, while they will never forget, they must learn to forgive.

  • Phil Fontaine:

    And there isn't anything more powerful in terms of symbolism than to be able to say, I forgive you.

  • William Brangham:

    But, for many, those whose emotional wounds persist to this day, even as the pope asks for forgiveness, that forgiveness does not come easily.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm William Brangham.

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