Pope Francis delivered a public apology on Monday for the Catholic Church’s role in Canada’s “catastrophic” residential school system for Indigenous children, and asked for forgiveness for the “evil committed by so many Christians.”

“I am here because the first step of my penitential pilgrimage among you is that of again asking forgiveness, of telling you once more that I am deeply sorry. Sorry for the ways in which, regrettably, many Christians supported the colonizing mentality of the powers that oppressed the Indigenous peoples. I am sorry,” the Pope said through a translator. 

“I ask forgiveness, in particular, for the ways in which many members of the Church and of religious communities cooperated, 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 continued. “It is painful to think of how the firm soil of values, language, and culture that made up the authentic identity of your peoples was eroded, and that you have continued to pay the prices of this.” 

The Pope called for further investigation, possibly referring to the Indigenous community’s demands for greater access to church records and personnel files of the priests and nuns who worked at the residential schools.

“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,” Francis said. “ What our Christian faith tells us is that this was a disastrous error, incompatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

His long-sought apology drew applause from thousands of Indigenous community members and residential school survivors gathered on the former site of the Ermineskin residential school. Four chiefs then gifted Francis a feathered headdress after his words, drawing louder cheers.

The Pope arrived Sunday in Edmonton, Alberta, where he was greeted with Indigenous music. He chose not to issue any remarks until Monday, when he reached Maskwacis, an Indigenous community south of Edmonton. Earlier in the day, the Pope paid a visit to Ermineskin cemetery grounds where he prayed and offered a moment of silence. 

The Pope’s visit to Maskwacis comes after years of Indigenous requests for reconciliation from the Catholic Church, which governed the majority of the schools in the 19th and 20th centuries where Indigenous children were severed from their families, language, and culture and subjected to unspeakable levels of abuse and neglect. 

Over 150,000 Indigenous children in Canada were forced to attend residential schools from the 19th century until the 1990s. The discoveries of the remains of hundreds of Indigenous children throughout the last year highlighted the horrific legacy of the schools in Canada. The discoveries prompted the Pope to adhere to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s call for him to apologize on Canadian soil for the Catholic Church’s role in the schools.

Members of the crowd on Monday wore traditional dress and colourful ribbon skirts and vests. Others stood in orange shirts, as a symbol of solidarity for residential school survivors.

After the Pope’s speech, an Indigenous pow wow was held, where chiefs and elders danced to drumbeats, as the crowd cheered and chanted war and victory songs, including a powerful rendition of O Canada delivered in Cree. 

One of the hosts of the event, Chief Randy Ermineskin of the Ermineskin Cree Nation, said he understands the refusal of some to attend, but concluded it was a historic day for his people.

“My late family members are not here with us anymore; my parents went to residential school, I went to residential school,” he told The Associated Press. “I know they’re with me, they’re listening, they’re watching.”

Chief Wilton Littlechild, a residential school survivor and former member of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said he hopes the Pope’s visit will only further the process of justice and healing.

“We sincerely hope that our encounter this morning and the words you share with us will echo the true healing and real hope for generations to come,” he said.

Later Monday, the Pope is set to visit the Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples in Edmonton.

Throughout his six-day visit he will host a large outdoor mass at the city’s football stadium and participate in a pilgrimage near Lac Ste. Anne, before travelling to other former school sites in Quebec City and Iqaluit, Nunavut.