During a highly awaited trip to Canada, Pope Francis has issued an apology to the Indigenous people of Canada for the Catholic Church’s role in residential schools that assimilated Indigenous children.
The schools, established in the 1890s under the leadership of the Roman Catholic church, were part of a Canada-wide network of residential schools set up to forcibly separate indigenous children from their families and assimilate them, according to Reuters.
A six year investigation into the system in 2015 found that it constituted “cultural genocide”.
The investigation revealed the physical abuse, rape, malnutrition and other atrocities experienced by at least 150,000 children who attended the schools between the 1840s and the 1990s.
The report also found that 4,100 children died while attending residential schools.
In recent years, hundreds of mass, unmarked graves containing the remains of Indigenous children have been discovered at the sites of various former residential schools across the country.
The Canadian government formally apologized for the system in 2008.
Francis promised then that he would visit Canada in July, traveling to the country for a week-long apology tour starting on Monday July 25.
Before addressing the thousands of Indigenous people who had gathered, he prayed at a cemetery believed to hold the remains of the residential schools students and visited the site of a former residential school, CNN reported.
Speaking at the location of two former schools in Maskwacis in Alberta, Francis asked for forgiveness for the “evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples” and called for a “serious investigation”.
“Sorry for the ways in which, regrettably, many Christians supported the colonizing mentality of the powers that oppressed the Indigenous peoples,” he said.
Afterwards, Indigenous leaders presented him with a traditional headdress, which he put on.
Survivors and Indigenous leaders have said that an apology is just the first step and that more action is needed.