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Pope: 'Genocide' occurred in Canada residential schools

By RENA LI  in Toronto | China Daily Global | Updated: 2022-08-03 11:16

Pope Francis pauses in front of the site of the former Ermineskin Residential School, alongside the Maskwacis Chiefs, during his visit on July 25, 2022 in Maskwacis, Canada. [Photo/Agencies]

Pope Francis, who visited Canada for "penance", said the treatment of the Indigenous people in Canada amounted to "genocide".

The 85-year-old pontiff made the comments on his flight back to Rome after a six-day trip in Canada, where he apologized to Indigenous survivors of abuse at residential schools run by the Catholic Church.

"I didn't use the word genocide (in Canada) because it didn't come to mind, but I did describe it," he told reporters onboard. 

Instead of using the word genocide, the pope described the attempts at destroying Indigenous peoples through assimilation and colonization. 

"To take away children, to change the culture, their mindset, their traditions — to change a race, an entire culture ... yes, I (now) use the word genocide," he said. "And I asked for forgiveness for this process which was genocide. I condemned it, too."

The leader of the Catholic Church visited Canada over the last week, looking to seek reconciliation between the Catholic Church and Indigenous peoples. He expressed sorrow, indignation and shame throughout his Canadian visit. 

Between 1881 and 1996, more than 150,000 Indigenous children were separated from their families and brought to residential schools. Many children were starved, beaten and sexually abused in a system that Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) called "cultural genocide".

According to the records gathered by the TRC, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation in Winnipeg has so far documented 4,118 children who died at residential schools. Causes of death included physical abuse, malnutrition, disease and neglect. Others died by suicide, or by trying to escape the schools.

The discovery of the remains of 215 children at a former residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia, last May uncovered what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called a "dark and shameful chapter" of the country's history. Since then, more than 1,100 unmarked graves have been discovered at former residential school sites across the country.

Indigenous leaders have been calling on the church to apologize for its role in the residential school system for decades. Many Indigenous groups have amended what TRC cited "cultural genocide" to "genocide", and the messaging ramped up before and during the pope's visit. 

Last year, Manitoba NDP Member of Parliament Leah Gazan tabled a motion for Parliament to recognize the residential school history as genocide, as she believes it meets the definition of genocide drafted by the United Nations, but it did not gain unanimous consent. 

The UN defines genocide as a number of acts committed with the "intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national ethnical, racial or religious group" such as killing members, inflicting bodily or mental harm to members, deliberate physical destruction in whole or in part, imposing measures intending to prevent births within a group, or forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls concluded in its final report that violence against women and girls is a form of genocide. The effects of residential schools were the subject of much testimony from families and survivors. 

Neglect, and physical and sexual abuse were rampant in the schools, 60 percent of which were run by the Catholic Church, according to the Canadian Press.

The residential school system was part of a broader project of assimilation that the Canadian government developed partly as its economic interests and need for land shifted, according to Wendy Fletcher, principal and vice-chancellor of Renison University College, University of Waterloo and a professor of religious studies and social work, who has been involved in researching this reality since 1998.  

"I believe that the policies of assimilation practiced in Canada were both cultural genocide and genocide more broadly," Fletcher told China Daily. 

"Although there was not an overt policy of killing Indigenous peoples, the policies implemented by the government and run by the church led to the death of countless Indigenous persons, including children," she said.

The residential school survivor and Indigenous leader called the pope's use of the word genocide a "dramatic shift", according to CBC News.

"It's about time that they use these kind of words to describe what happened to our people. It's about time that we're saying words that have meaning and truth," Jennifer Wood, who works with the Winnipeg-based National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, told CBC. 

The pope's use of the word genocide doesn't stimulate an endless debate between the differences in meaning of the words "genocide" and "cultural genocide" when it comes to describing what residential school survivors experienced, according to Phil Fontaine, former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations and a residential school survivor.

"It clearly represents a dramatic shift, from my perspective. It was completely unexpected," Fontaine told the media. "I wasn't looking for perfection. But I was looking for words that were significant, meaningful and honest."

Brock Pitawanakwat, an associate professor of Indigenous studies at York University, said that the development was important even though it is a little late.

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