POPE Francis’s visit to Canada this week – where he has apologised to First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples for the despicable role played by the Catholic Church in the scandalous programme of so-called “residential schools” for Indigenous children – is emblematic of his papacy. Francis has inherited a church embroiled in a series of historic and ongoing scandals, from the brutal Mother and Baby Homes in Ireland to the crimes of paedophile clergy worldwide.

Despite his ailing health, Francis has been compelled to travel from country-to-country in a desperate attempt to douse the numerous fires that threaten to engulf the church of Rome. Arriving in Canada, he said he was on a “pilgrimage of penance”.

Well might he say so. The residential schools programme – in which the Canadian state colluded with the Roman Catholic, United, Anglican and Presbyterian churches in the forced separation of 150,000 Indigenous children from their families – leaves a dark and indelible stain on Canada and its major Christian denominations.

More importantly, it leaves a deep, insufferable wound in the lives of Canada’s Aboriginal people. The programme – in which children were wrenched from their families and sent, often hundreds of miles away, to one of 139 state-registered residential schools (many others were operated independently of the state) – was one of attempted cultural genocide.

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The children were forbidden to speak their own languages, and forced, instead, to speak English and/or French. In addition to the separation from their own communities and cultures, the children were instructed in Christianity and a colonial, Euro-centric education programme.

Extreme violence and sexual abuse was commonplace. The stated purpose of the programme was to “civilise” the children and wipe out any trace of so-called “Indian” culture from their character.

The reality was hundreds of thousands of shattered lives and, thus far, an unknown number of child deaths at the hands of clergy and others involved in the residential school system. As of last year, the estimated death toll within the schools was 3200 (although, with only a fraction of the sites having so far been investigated, the true total could be far higher).

The first church-run residential school for Indigenous children was opened in 1831. The forcible removal of children to such homes was adopted by the Canadian Government (under the pernicious Indian Act of 1876) in the 1880s.

The last residential school in Canada, located in the province of Saskatchewan, didn’t close until 1996. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established by the Canadian federal government and the organisations representing the countries’ Indigenous peoples, was conducted between 2008 and 2015.

Almost 130 of the 139 official residential schools were operated by the Catholic Church. Hence Pope Francis’s high profile visit to seek for the church the forgiveness of Canada’s Aboriginal communities.

The stories of the survivors of the attempted cultural genocide in which the church was engaged are truly harrowing. One survivor, Jack Kruger, was sent to the St. Eugene’s school in British Columbia in 1956. He was just six years old.

Kruger remembers a police officer and a priest coming to his family’s home to take him away. He was then transported more than 300 miles from his community in a train. He recalls he and other Indigenous children being “stuffed like sardines” into a cattle truck.

Kept at the school for three years, he suffered and witnessed abuse at the hands of Catholic clergy. He was beaten for speaking his own language.

“When you’re a little boy, you couldn’t do nothing. You couldn’t say nothing”, he remembered. “The priests had so damn much power. It’s incredible.”

Investigative journalist Duncan McCue – a member of the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation – has made a series of eight powerful podcasts for the Canada Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) uncovering the history of the residential school on Kuper Island (now known as Penelakut Island), British Columbia. They make for sobering listening.

The Kuper Island school – which was nicknamed the “Canadian Alcatraz” – was demolished in the 1980s, but, as McCue discovered, survivors still struggle to live with its terrible legacy. Tony Charlie was a schoolboy there during the 1960s.

He details a strict regime of religious and patriotic indoctrination in which enforced prayer and oaths of allegiance to the Canadian flag were part of day-to-day life. As McCue observes, such a regime reflected the longstanding policy of the Canadian Government.

In 1920 Canada’s deputy superintendent of the Department of Indian Affairs, Duncan Campbell Scott, said: “I want to get rid of the Indian problem... Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department.”

This policy was aimed not only at the wiping out of the cultures and languages of Canada’s Indigenous peoples, but also the erasure of their legal rights. If Aboriginal people became mere Canadian citizens, with no prior claim to the land of their ancestors, they would have no land rights.

The residential schools programme – like the Australian state policy of abducting Aboriginal children and placing them with white adoptive parents – was at the forefront of efforts to steal the land of Indigenous peoples.

The contempt for Indigenous cultures that was inherent in such a policy spilled over very easily into physical and sexual abuse of Indigenous children. In 1966, schoolboy Richard Thomas died on Kuper Island.

The Christian brothers and nuns who ran the school told the boys that the child had hanged himself after hearing that his parents were going to separate. Inexplicably, the children were then taken to view the dead boy’s body.

Richard’s sister, Belvie, who attended the girls’ wing of the Kuper Island school, has exposed the school authorities’ explanation of her brother’s death as a lie. Their parents were never on the brink of separating.

The last time the family heard from Richard was soon before he was due to graduate from the school. In a phone call home, Richard told Belvie that he “couldn’t wait to get out” of the “hell hole” of Kuper Island.

Richard told his sister that, as soon as he got off the island, he was going to expose the abuse that went on there. Then the call ended abruptly.

Staff listening in on pupils’ phone calls was a regular occurrence at the Kuper Island school. The family never heard from Richard again.

The original coroner’s report – which describes Richard’s death as suicide – has yet to be overturned, but his sister continues to believe that he was murdered. Researchers have determined that at least 167 children died on Kuper Island. Some of them are buried in unmarked graves.

Sexual abuse was also rife within the residential school system. Tony Charlie remembers an instance from 1967, when he was 16, in which what should have been a happy memory – his involvement in a Kuper Island school band trip to perform in Quebec – was turned into trauma.

As the band were preparing to return to British Columbia, Tony and his brother James were kept behind by a young oblate, Brother Brian Dufour, who told them they would be staying with him in Montreal for an additional month.

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After installing the two teenage brothers in the basement of his parents’ home, Dufour systematically sexually abused both boys. Subsequent to the Montreal trip, back on Kuper Island, Tony was the victim of another sexual predator, oblate Glen Doughty.

Both clergymen were eventually charged with sexual abuse of minors. Dufour died before he could be convicted. Doughty served a jail term.

The horrors of Canada’s residential school system speak to the real nature of a European colonial project that – far from spreading “civilisation” – dehumanised Indigenous peoples across the Americas, Africa, Asia and Oceania. Like the Magdalene Laundries for so-called “fallen women” (i.e. women who became pregnant outside of marriage) in Ireland and here in Scotland, the Canadian schools also speak to the toxic consequences of collusion between church and state in efforts to pursue a given political or moral agenda.

The Catholic Church’s guilt in the Canadian case is massive, undeniable and, as Pope Francis’s visit attests, a considerable impediment to the life of the church in Canada today. However, it is also a powerful reminder – at a time when right-wing politicians and commentators are leading a backlash against supposedly “woke” efforts to decolonise language and education – of the racist evil at the heart of the British colonial project.