Anything short of an apology, visit from the Pope is an 'insult,' 2 Indigenous people say

Some Manitoba Indigenous people are calling on Pope Francis to apologize for the role the Catholic Church played in residential schools, but say true reconciliation is what happens afterwards.

True reconciliation means an apology, releasing residential school records, visiting Canada: Niigaan Sinclair

St. Peter's Basilica is pictured towering over Rome. First Nations, Métis and Inuit delegates are in the city this week to meet with Pope Francis. Many Indigenous people there and back in Canada are seeking an apology to kickstart reconciliation with the Catholic Church. (Stephanie Jenzer/CBC)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

Some Manitoba Indigenous people are calling on Pope Francis to apologize for the role the Catholic Church played in residential schools, but say true reconciliation is what happens afterwards.

The Pope is holding private hour-long audiences with more than 30 members of First Nations, Métis and Inuit delegations this week in Vatican City.

Métis delegates met with the Pope first on Monday, while a separate meeting with Inuit and First Nations delegates will take place on Thursday.

The Pope has not yet apologized for the church's role in residential schools, which forced over 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children to attend church-run, government-funded schools between the 1870s and 1997.

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation has identified the names of, or information about, more than 4,100 children who died while attending these schools, most due to malnourishment or disease. However, the death count could be much higher due to poor record-keeping.

In the days after the death of his father, Raymond Mason — a residential school survivor and advocate for others who suffered similar abuses  — Kyle Mason says that needs to happen.

Kyle Mason is a reconciliation consultant and public speaker living in Winnipeg. (SRC)

"[The Pope] needs to take a firm, unequivocal stance and say that we're sorry, we have wronged you and we need to do better and we need a change," he said.

"There are still too many people that have this misguided view that residential schools meant well or they had good intentions. No, no, they didn't. They were evil."

The Catholic Church operated roughly 70 per cent of Canada's residential schools.

Niigaan Sinclair is a professor of Native studies at the University of Manitoba. He expects an apology from the Pope at the end of the week for the Catholic Church's role in residential schools. (University of Manitoba)

Niigaan Sinclair, a University of Manitoba professor of Native studies, hopes the week will end with that apology and a commitment from the Pope to visit Canada, fulfilling call to action No. 58 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

"Anything less would be an insult. Expecting Indigenous peoples to fly all the way to the Vatican and then not have that happen would simply be an insult and would be unfortunately unsurprising," he said.

The apology is only just the first step.

"Begin the process of performing reparations for the tremendous harm the stolen land, the stolen lives, the stolen experiences of Indigenous children and lives and communities," Sinclair said.

"The fact is that the Catholic Church has a long way to go before it can even begin to use the word reconciliation."

For him, reconciliation means returning stolen land, returning any stolen artifacts that the Catholic Church holds and making public any documents that show which Indigenous children were buried in unmarked graves.

"That is what reconciliation looks like. It's action. It's not an apology." 

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools or by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.


Rachel Bergen is a journalist for CBC Manitoba and previously reported for CBC Saskatoon. Email story ideas to

With files from Julien Sahuquillo