Indigenous leaders secure papal audience to push for residential school apology

Indigenous leaders secure papal audience to push for residential school apology-Milenio Stadium-Canada
Pope Francis delivers his Urbi et Orbi blessing after celebrating Easter Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica at The Vatican Sun. April 4, 2021, during the pandemic. (Filippo Monteforte/The Associated Press)

National Indigenous leaders will meet with Pope Francis at the Vatican in December to press for a papal apology for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in residential schools, according to two people close to the discussions.

Saskatoon Catholic cathedral covered with paint after discovery of 751 unmarked graves

Delegations of First Nations, Métis and Inuit will meet with the Pope separately between December 17 and December 20, according to two officials close to the negotiations who are not authorized to speak publicly at this time.

The entire Indigenous delegation will then have a final papal audience on December 20 to conclude the visit, the sources said.

The purpose of the meetings is to call on Pope Francis to deliver an apology on Canadian soil, said the sources.

Leaders of the Assembly of First Nations, Métis National Council and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami want Pope Francis to deliver an official apology to survivors and families for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in operating residential schools and other Canadian institutions that Indigenous students were forced to attend.

National Indigenous leaders have been working with the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) for over two years to send a delegation of Indigenous representatives to meet the Pope.

Assembly of First Nations in 2016-Milenio Stadium-Canada
Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde, left, and Manitoba Metis Federation President David Chartrand, right, listen to President of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami Natan Obed respond to a question in the foyer of the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Thurs. Dec. 15, 2016. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

In a statement issued earlier this month, the CCCB said the Indigenous delegation will consist of elders, knowledge keepers, residential school survivors and young people from across the country.

The June 10 statement from the bishops said the visit will give Pope Francis the chance to “hear directly from Indigenous Peoples, express his heartfelt closeness, address the impact of colonization and the implication of the Church in residential schools, so as to respond to the suffering of Indigenous Peoples and the ongoing effects of intergenerational trauma.”

The trip was supposed to have happened already, but the pandemic pushed those plans back.

Now, following the reported discovery of unmarked graves at the sites of former residential schools in Kamloops, B.C., and Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan, the push to lay the groundwork for an official papal apology is intensifying.

“The Pope needs to apologize,” said Cowessess First Nation Chief Cadmus Delorme last week after announcing a preliminary finding of 751 unmarked graves at a cemetery near the former Marieval Indian Residential School, about 140 kilometres east of Regina.

“An apology is one stage in the healing journey.”

Church still the only institution not to issue formal apology

The leaders also intend to ask the Pope to instruct the church to release all records relating to residential schools, as well as any Indigenous items seized from Canada that the Vatican may hold in its vaults.

On the federal government’s behalf, the Catholic Church operated more than half of all residential schools in Canada, which were open between 1831 and 1996.

The church also ran day schools — which operated like residential schools, although their students did not stay overnight.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with Pope Francis in 2017-Milenio Stadium-Canada
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with Pope Francis for a private audience at the Vatican on Mon. May 29, 2017. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The Roman Catholic Church is the only institution that has not yet made a formal apology for its part in running residential schools in Canada, although Catholic entities in Canada have apologized.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met Pope Francis at the Vatican in 2017 to ask for an apology.

Last month, Chief Rosanne Casimir of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation urged the Pope to apologize after the reported discovery of the remains of an estimated 215 children buried on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia.

Pope Francis said earlier this month that he was pained by the discovery and called for respect of the rights and culture of Indigenous people. His statement fell short of an official apology.

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