On July 24, Pope Francis will embark on a week-long trip across Canada that he has called a “penitential pilgrimage” to meet with Indigenous communities and formally apologize for rampant abuses and “cultural genocide” in residential schools run by the Roman Catholic Church. —where more than 150,000 Indigenous children were forcibly recruited.
In late March, delegates from Canada’s three largest Indigenous groups – Métis, Inuit and First Nations – met with Pope Francis at the Vatican, and the Pope delivered the first-ever formal apology from a Pope to Canada’s Indigenous community. During the meeting, the pope said he would aim to travel to Canada to begin a process of reconciliation and healing.
“Unfortunately, in Canada, many Christians, including some members of religious orders, have contributed to policies of cultural assimilation which in the past have seriously harmed indigenous populations in various ways,” Pope Francis said in a statement. a public statement at the Vatican last week.
Here’s what you need to know about the visit:
Why the Pope visits Canada
Pope Francis’ trip comes about a year after the remains of more than 1,000 people, mostly children, were discovered on the grounds of former residential schools across Canada, including in British Columbia and Saskatchewan. The unidentified mass burial sites have sparked national outrage over Canada’s long history of abuse and death in residential schools.
In schools, children were victims of emotional, physical and sexual abuse by school authorities, often by members of the clergy who worked there. Unsafe living conditions and abuse have resulted in an undocumented number of school deaths that have mostly gone unreported. Indigenous communities have long called for a papal apology to account for church involvement.
The Indian Residential Schools Settlement, the largest class action settlement in Canadian history, came into effect in 2007. In addition to financial compensation for former students, investigations into individual allegations of physical and sexual abuse, funding health and healing programs, and commemorating the hardship caused by schools, the settlement provided for the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
The TRC was a Canadian government commission created to examine the effects and legacy of the residential school system and to propose solutions that do not erase the history of Indigenous suffering. The commission highlighted the church’s role in the residential school system and advocated for the pope to make a statement.
“We ask the Pope to apologize to survivors, their families and communities for the role of the Roman Catholic Church in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit and Métis children in the Catholic schools Boarding schools We ask that this apology be similar to the 2010 apology presented to Irish victims of abuse and that it occur within one year of the publication of this report and be presented by the Pope in Canada wrote the TRC in its calls to action in 2015.
The pope will visit Edmonton, Quebec and Iqaluit, three culturally significant places with a large indigenous population, on his trip. In a unique diplomatic fashion, the pope will only meet the Canadian head of state, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, halfway through the trip.
Read more: ICanada’s Indigenous groups want more than an apology during Pope’s visit
The first pope from the Western Hemisphere, the Argentine-born Pope Francis, has been credited with being more vocal on indigenous rights than other figures in the Catholic Church.
“Having the church take care of this is going to be really important. On Sunday it should be discussed in every pulpit across the country for Catholics. Priests should explain what this means for the Catholic people to change their actions as individuals,” Bill Erasmus, Canadian chair of the Arctic Athabaskan Council and former Dene national chief, told TIME. “That’s the only way it will have impact and meaning.”
What to Know About Roman Catholic Abuse in Indigenous Schools
The residential school system, which was established by the Canadian government, was a network of residential schools across Canada, and for years attendance was compulsory for all Indigenous children. Schools have extensive documentation of the large-scale physical, sexual and emotional abuse issues that have traumatized generations of Indigenous children.
“I didn’t go to boarding school. My father had to leave. He lived it, and he didn’t want that for us,” Erasmus says. “I haven’t experienced it, but I’m the next generation. It’s intergenerational, it concerns us all.
The Catholic Church ran about 70% of residential schools in Canada from the 1880s to the 1990s. Beyond a rudimentary general education, indoctrination in Christianity and Euro-Canadian customs prevailed in the schools.
“If you study how Indigenous lands were invaded or colonized, there is a pattern that involves the church,” Erasmus says. “It’s because our people already knew about spirituality. They already had their own belief system and they weren’t about to argue about God when other spiritual people came among them, so they accepted Christianity to a large extent, but then they been rocked by what was happening to them.
The residential school program was designed to eradicate all aspects of Indigenous culture, according to the University of British Columbia article. Siblings were separated from each other and indigenous languages, customs and traditions were banned. The children also suffered from overcrowding, poor sanitation, insufficient food and health care, and relatively high death rates, according to the article. In 1907, a Canadian government inspector reported that 24% of previously healthy Aboriginal children died in residential schools.
Schools also had classes teaching business skills and manual labor, but the practice was generally seen as a method of enforcing social order and confining Native people to lower working-class jobs.
What indigenous communities expect from his visit
Indigenous Canadians across the country are grappling with what the Pope’s visit could mean for them. Some think it’s a hollow gesture in many ways, while others look forward to it as an opportunity to find peace.
Chief Doris Bill of the Kwanlin Dün First Nation highlights the importance of the healing that this journey offers to many survivors. The Kwanlin Dün First Nation delegation brings counselors and medical professionals in case the event triggers or overwhelms the survivors.
“I am a survivor myself, there are about 49 of us from our First Nation who have come down. It was interesting because at 4:30 this morning we were supposed to be at the airport and everyone was excited and smiling – that was really something,” says Bill. “I think everyone has different expectations of what this trip means for them. I hope this helps them on their journey to recovery. For some, an apology means a lot and I really hope it helps them to move on and leave all those negative things behind.
Erasmus shares that while an apology is necessary, people may or may not be ready to accept. It remains to be seen whether the Catholic Church and other authorities complicit in Indigenous oppression will continue to listen to Indigenous communities and help them recover, Erasmus says.
“When it comes to the church, government cannot be left out. One of the big problems here in Canada, as well as in the United States, [is that] the catholic church was paid by the government to take care of our children in schools,” explains Erasmus. “It’s deeply rooted, it’s systemic. It’s in the laws, it’s in Canada’s worldview.
Indigenous leaders and advocacy groups also continue to point to problems with the Doctrine of Discovery, the legal precedent that gave European governments and the Catholic Church justification to colonize Indigenous lands. In 2016, the Catholic Church released a public statement on the Doctrine of Discovery acknowledging its role in the oppression of Indigenous peoples, but the doctrine was never officially renounced.
“Part of the message that the First Nations of Canada brought to the Pope when they met earlier this year is that they must also reject the Doctrine of Discovery, which essentially says that our people were discovered by others and because we weren’t Christians at the time. contact, others had a legal obligation to occupy our land,” explains Erasmus. “Part of this is the perpetuation of the myth that we have abandoned our lands or been conquered. We have never been conquered. We have concluded treaties, which are peace and friendship.
The Pope’s visit to apologize for a long and devastating history of abuse against Indigenous peoples in Canada is the first step in his goal to make amends.
“When the council brought it up, for us it was a no-brainer. We need to support our survivors. This could be a real watershed moment for some people in helping them move forward on their path to recovery,” Bill says.
More Must-Try Stories from TIME