Wrapping up his Canadian visit, Francis said he repeatedly condemned the system that severed family ties and attempted to impose new cultural beliefs as “catastrophic” to generations of Indigenous peoples.
Pope Francis has agreed that the attempt to eliminate Indigenous culture in Canada through a church-run residential school system amounted to a cultural “genocide”.
Speaking to reporters while en route home from Canada on Saturday, Francis said he didn’t use the term during his trip to atone for the Catholic Church’s role in the schools because it never came to mind.
“It’s true I didn’t use the word because it didn’t come to mind, but I described genocide, no?” Francis, who used the term “cultural destruction” in his apology during his “penitential pilgrimage“ to Canada, said.
“I asked forgiveness for this work, which was genocide,” Francis said. “It’s a technical word, ‘genocide’. I didn’t use because it didn’t come to mind, but I described that, and it’s true it’s a genocide.” he said.
Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission determined in 2015 that the forced removal of Indigenous children from their homes and placement in the residential schools to assimilate them constituted a “cultural genocide”.
Some 150,000 children from the late 1800s to the 1970s were subject to the forced assimilation policy, aimed at making them fully Christian and Canadian.
Many were physically and sexually abused at the schools, and children were beaten for speaking their Native languages. Thousands are believed to have died of disease and malnutrition.
Francis said he repeatedly condemned the system that severed family ties and attempted to impose new cultural beliefs as “catastrophic” to generations of Indigenous peoples.
Francis ended his trip to Canada as he began — by apologising to the Indigenous survivors of Catholic-run schools.
He wrapped up his journey on Friday in the capital of the vast northern territory of Nunavut, Iqaluit, which means "the place of many fish".
Francis met with survivors of the schools, then told a crowd of around 2,000 mainly Indigenous people that their stories "renewed in me the indignation and shame that I have felt for months".
The six-day visit took the pontiff from Alberta in western Canada to Quebec and then the far north allowed him to meet many of Canada's First Nations, Metis and Inuit people, who for years had been awaiting his plea for forgiveness.
While many of them welcomed the gesture by the 85-year-old, who spent much of the trip in a wheelchair due to knee pain, they also made clear that this was only a first step on a journey of reconciliation.
Some have called for Francis to rescind the Doctrine of Discovery, the 15th century papal bulls that allowed European powers to colonise any non-Christian lands and people.
Demands were also made for him to allow Indigenous people access to records documenting what happened in the schools and to return Indigenous artefacts currently held in Vatican museums.
During his tour, Francis vowed to promote Indigenous rights and said the Church was on a "journey" of healing and reconciliation.
Last Monday, he visited the town of Maskwacis, the site of two former residential schools, where he apologised and called forced assimilation "evil" and a "disastrous error".