"I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples," Pope Francis has told Indigenous leaders from the First Nations, Metis and Inuit people.
Pope Francis has apologised for the "evil" inflicted on the Indigenous peoples of Canada on the first day of a visit focused on addressing decades of abuse at Catholic-run residential schools.
"I am sorry," the 85-year-old pontiff said on Monday, delivering his address at the site of one of the largest of Canada's infamous residential schools, where Indigenous children were sent as part of a policy of forced assimilation.
"I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples," said the pope, citing "cultural destruction" and the "physical, verbal, psychological and spiritual abuse" of children over the course of decades.
The plea for forgiveness from the leader of the world's 1.3 billion Catholics was made before a crowd of First Nations, Metis and Inuit people in Maskwacis, in western Alberta province.
Some of them were taken from their families as children in what has been branded a "cultural genocide".
Francis spoke of his "deep sense of pain and remorse" as he formally acknowledged that "many members of the Church" had cooperated in the abusive system.
Emotion was palpable in Maskwacis, an Indigenous community south of provincial capital Edmonton that was the site of the Ermineskin residential school until it closed in 1975.
Several hundred people, many in traditional clothing, were in attendance, along with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mary Simon, the country's first Indigenous governor general.
Many lowered their eyes, wiped away tears or leaned on and hugged neighbours, and Indigenous leaders afterwards placed a traditional feathered headdress on the pope.
From the late 1800s to the 1990s, Canada's government sent about 150,000 children into 139 residential schools run by the Church, where they were cut off from their families, language and culture.
Many were physically and sexually abused, and thousands are believed to have died of disease, malnutrition or neglect.
During a ceremony performed before the pope spoke in Maskwacis, Indigenous people carried a bright red 50-metre-long banner on which the names — or sometimes only the nicknames — of all the children known to have died were written in white. There were 4,120 of them, officials said.
Since May 2021, more than 1,300 unmarked graves have been discovered at the sites of the former schools, sending shockwaves throughout Canada — which has slowly begun to acknowledge this long, dark chapter in its history.
A delegation of Indigenous peoples traveled to the Vatican in April and met the pope — a precursor to Francis' trip — after which he formally apologised. But doing so again on Canadian soil was of huge significance to survivors and their families.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who was also at the Maskwacis ceremony, said that "reconciliation is the responsibility of all Canadians".
"No one must ever forget what happened at residential schools across Canada and we must all ensure it never happens again," he said in a statement.