TORONTO – A major Canadian branch of the Catholic Church has apologized for the first time for more than a century for the horrors at residential schools run for the federal government.

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Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) issued a statement Acknowledging Friday it described what it described as a “serious mistreatment by some members of our Catholic community” in schools, as well as a “suppression of indigenous languages, culture and spirituality” of the residential school system.

“Together with those Catholic institutions directly involved in the running of the schools and who have already offered our heartfelt apologies, we, the Catholic Bishops of Canada, express our deepest regrets and categorically Apologize to you.”

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In addition, the bishops referred to a previously announced upcoming meeting in December between Pope Francis, residential school survivors, and other indigenous knowledgeables. The bishops said the purpose of the meeting would be to determine how the Pope “can support our common desire to renew relations and walk together on the path of hope in the years to come.”

The federally funded program had 139 residential schools that operated in Canada between the end of the 19th century and 1996. Many of them were run by the Catholic Church.

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Of the 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children who attended these schools, 1,000 died, with some estimates putting the number of deaths at 15,000. Earlier this year hundreds of unmarked graves were found at the sites of several former residential schools; In some cases it is believed that the number of children buried at these sites is many times greater than any official death.

While individual priests and bishops have apologized for the church’s role in running the schools, as of Friday an official apology had never been received from the Canadian Catholic hierarchy. The Vatican also never apologized, despite calls to do so.

The Catholic Church, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, has also been criticized for failing to provide full access to records relating to residential schools. The bishops said in their statement that they would “continue to provide documents or records that would help remember those buried in unmarked graves.”

The CCCB said that in addition to existing initiatives to promote healing and reconciliation, it will launch new fundraising initiatives in every region of the country “to support locally understood initiatives with indigenous partners”.

The bishops also pledged to usher in “a new era of reconciliation” by inviting residential school survivors and other Indigenous peoples to share their stories with Canadian Catholics.

The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation will be marked for the first time on 30 September.

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If you are a former residential school student who is in crisis, or affected by the residential school system and need help, you can contact the 24-hour Indian Residential School Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419 can do.

Additional mental-health support and resources for Indigenous peoples are available here.