In his first public event in Canada, Pope Francis issued a formal apology to the country’s Indigenous community Monday for the Catholic Church’s role in the “cultural genocide” of generations of Indigenous children.

“I am deeply sorry,” the pontiff told those who attended the schools and community members gathered at a former residential school south of Edmonton, Alberta, The Associated Press reported. “I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples.”

Pope Francis apologizes for ‘devastating’ school abuses in Canada

What happened?

The pontiff’s request for forgiveness came at the beginning of a weeklong “penitential pilgrimage” to make amends for forced assimilation of more than 150,000 native children into Christian society, forcing them to attend government-funded Christian schools for many decades, which disrupted their cultures, severed families and marginalized generations.

Physical and sexual abuse were unchecked at the schools and students were beaten for speaking their native languages. Indigenous leaders have cited that legacy of abuse and isolation as a leading cause for high rates of alcohol and drug addiction on Canadian reservations, The Associated Press reported.

What else was said?

The pontiff said he came to Canada to deliver his apology in person “to implore God’s forgiveness,” to be closer to the people and to pray with and for them, according to Vatican News.

  • “We want to walk together, to pray together and to work together, so that the sufferings of the past can lead to a future of justice, healing and reconciliation,” he said.

The pope said the Catholic Church is committed to accepting and respecting the identity and experience of Indigenous people going forward.

  • “We are speaking of processes that must penetrate hearts,” he said. “My presence here and the commitment of the Canadian Bishops are a testimony to our will to persevere on this path.”

Not all were happy with the visit. One 80-year-old residential school survivor, Henry Boubard, who was sexually abused by a a priest, says it’s too late to reconcile, according to

“You took away my education, you took away my life, you took away my marriage, you took away my identity, you took away everything I wanted to be. Now it’s nothing, and you say I’m sorry,” Bourbard said of the pope’s apology.

Boubard was one of several residential school survivors who told about their dark experiences.

Why did the pope get a headdress?

While meeting with several indigenous communities near one former school, four chiefs presented Pope Francis with a feathered headdress to make him an honorary leader of the community.

The pope donned the regalia briefly.

A video by Vatican News captured the moment when Pope Francis received the feathered headdress and other festivities.

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The headdress, a war bonnet, was a gift to honor the pope for his goodwill, Samson Cree elder John Crier said told CBC News.

“The giving of the headdress is honoring a man as the honorary chief and leader in a community. So, in doing that it actually adopted him as one of our leaders in the community,” Crier said. “It’s an honoring of the work that he has done and it also is recognizing from the community that here’s a man that belongs to our tribe.”

One writer and Indigenous rights activist based in Toronto was frustrated by the gesture.

“The church is here because it didn’t act very honorably and the church continues not to act very honorably,” Riley Yesno told CBC News. “We’re gifting things to the pope and the pope is not returning these (gestures) on the list of things that are actually meant to happen.”

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