'I've waited 50 years for this apology,' says residential school survivor on Pope's statement

In his first public address since arriving in Canada, Pope Francis expressed deep sorrow for harms suffered at residential schools and asked forgiveness for church members' co-operation with government policies of assimilation.

Pope Francis asked forgiveness for church members' co-operation with government on residential schools

Pope Francis prays at the Ermineskin Cree Nation cemetery in front of the chiefs of the four First Nations of Maskwacis, Alta., July 25. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

For Evelyn Korkmaz, a residential school survivor from Fort Albany First Nation on the west coast of James Bay, an apology from the leader of the Catholic church has been a long time coming.

"I've waited 50 years for this apology and finally today, I heard it," said Evelyn Korkmaz.

Korkmaz attended St. Anne's residential school between 1969 and 1972, and is a founding member of Advocates for Clergy Trauma Survivors in Canada. She travelled from Ottawa to hear the apology, and said it evoked mixed emotions.

Evelyn Korkmaz, a survivor of the former St. Anne's Residential School, has repeatedly called on the Roman Catholic Church to release all residential school records. (Brian Morris/CBC)

"Unfortunately a lot of my family members, friends, classmates and members of my community that went to residential school were not able to hear it because they passed on through suicide, alcohol addiction and other substance abuse because they could not live with the trauma they endured in these residential schools," she said.

In his first public address on Monday since arriving in Canada, Pope Francis expressed deep sorrow for harms suffered at residential schools and asked forgiveness for church members' co-operation with government policies of assimilation.

Speaking in Spanish, with translation in English, he said he was "deeply sorry" for "the ways in which, regrettably, many Christians supported the colonizing mentality of the powers that oppressed the Indigenous peoples."

"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," he said.

"Although Christian charity was not absent, and there were many outstanding instances of devotion and care for children, the overall effects of the policies linked to the residential schools were catastrophic.

"I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples."

WATCH | Pope Francis's address to survivors at Maskwacis:

Pope 'deeply sorry' for 'colonizing mentality' of many Christians

1 year ago
Duration 3:53
During his visit to Maskwacis, Alta., Pope Francis apologized to survivors of residential schools for the ways in which members of the Catholic Church co-operated in the cultural destruction of Indigenous life.

The apology was made at the powwow grounds in Maskwacis, south of Edmonton. Hundreds of First Nations, Métis and Inuit residential school survivors and their families were in attendance. 

Visit to former school site

The Pope's visit to Maskwacis is part of a six-day "penitential pilgrimage" that the head of the Catholic Church is on to express "sorrow… healing and reconciliation" between the Catholic Church and Indigenous peoples. The pontiff arrived in Canada on Sunday and will also visit Quebec City and Iqaluit.

Before making his address, the Pope briefly visited the Ermineskin cemetery and the site of the former Ermineskin Indian Residential School. Five teepees are now erected where the school once stood.

Pope Francis travels by wheelchair from the Ermineskin cemetery to the site of a former residential school prior to making his first public address in Canada. (Ka'nhehsí:io Deer/CBC)

"When I was waiting for the Pope at the old residential school site, I could just picture my first year in school," said Chief Randy Ermineskin from the Ermineskin First Nation.

"Halfway through the year, in the winter, we had to move to a new school and they tore that place down. The summer before I started school, they took the electric fence down."

Teepees on the site of the former Ermineskin Indian Residential School in Maskwacis, Alta., on Monday. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

On April 1, following meetings at the Vatican with delegations of First Nations, Métis and Inuit, the Pope apologized for the deplorable conduct of some church members involved in residential schools and promised to visit Canada.

For many, that apology did not go far enough.

In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission called for the Pope to issue an apology in Canada to survivors, their families, and communities for the Roman Catholic Church's role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children in Catholic-run residential schools.

The apologies have referred to actions of many members of the Church and religious communities but not the role of the institution itself, nor have they mentioned sexual abuse.

The Catholic Church ran over half of the residential schools in Canada. Over 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were forced to attend the government-funded schools between the 1870s and 1997.

Ermineskin school one of the largest

Ermineskin Indian Residential School began as a Catholic mission in 1895 and operated as one of the largest residential schools in Canada until 1975. The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, which is a repository for residential school archival history, has documented to date 15 deaths of children who attended the school.

"I was a student here at the Ermineskin residential school, which, for your visit among us this day, represents all the residential schools of our country," said Wilton Littlechild, honorary chief of Ermineskin First Nation, on Monday in welcoming the pontiff.

Hundreds of First Nations, Métis and Inuit residential school survivors and their families were in attendance at the powwow grounds in Maskwacis, Alta. (Ka'nhehsí:io Deer/CBC)

As a former commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Littlechild heard thousands of testimonies from former students of residential schools. 

"During our time with you, it was clear to us all that you listened deeply and with great compassion to the testimonies that told of the way our language was suppressed, our culture taken from us, and our spirituality denigrated," said Littlechild.

"The words you spoke to us in response clearly came from the depths of your heart, and were for those who heard them a source of deep comfort and great encouragement."

Pope given war bonnet

Littlechild placed a war bonnet on the Pope before a motorcade escorted him back to St. Joseph Seminary in Edmonton, where he is staying during the Alberta leg of the visit.

Pope Francis receives a traditional headdress after addressing residential school survivors in Maskwacis, Alta., on Monday. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

"I see Pope Francis's apology today only as a first step in the Church making amends with our people," said Treaty 6 Grand Chief George Arcand Jr.

"After meeting with Pope and hearing his words, I believe there is a path forward together. There's a lot of work that needs to be done."

During the address Monday, the Pope did acknowledge that an apology is only the first step. He said an important process will be to conduct a "serious investigation into the facts of what took place in the past and to assist the survivors of the residential schools to experience healing from the traumas they suffered." However, he stopped short of naming any concrete actions.

Several residential school survivors have asked for the papal bulls reinforcing the doctrine of discovery to be rescinded, for Indigenous artifacts in the Vatican's possession to be repatriated, and for the Catholic Church to release all documents related to residential schools.

It's something Korkmaz hopes will be addressed in Quebec City later this week.

"There was no mention in his apology of releasing the documents that we desperately need across Canada. These documents hold our history… they belong here in Canada, they belong to us," she said.

"I'm glad I lived long enough to have witnessed his apology but I want more because 50 years is too long to wait for an apology."

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for residential school survivors and others affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

Support is also available for anyone affected by their experience at Indian or federal day schools. Individuals can access immediate mental health counselling and crisis intervention services at the Hope for Wellness helpline by calling 1-855-242-3310 or online at


Ka’nhehsí:io Deer is a Kanien’kehá:ka journalist from Kahnawà:ke, south of Montreal. She is currently a reporter with CBC Indigenous covering communities across Quebec.