Manitoba First Nations leaders Fontaine, McLeod hope to get more than apology out of Pope Francis

The Pope is coming to Canada and a former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations hopes to get more than an apology out of him.

Catholic Church leader to visit Canada for the first time since 2002

Pope Francis will visit Canada after accepting an offer from the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, which will happen 'in the context of the long-standing pastoral process of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples,' the Vatican says. (Vatican Media/Reuters)

The Pope is coming to Canada and a former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations hopes to get more than an apology out of him.

Pope Francis has accepted an invitation by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops to come to Canada in the context of reconciliation with Indigenous people.

Many, including former national chief Phil Fontaine, expect Francis will use the trip to address and perhaps even apologize for abuses suffered by Indigenous children who were forced to attend residential schools that were run by the Catholic Church. 

"Clearly the most important thing that can take place during his visit is a full apology to our people, the survivors of the residential school experience, and hopefully it will not be just an apology," Fontaine told CBC News from Calgary on Wednesday.

"We're hoping, of course, that he will set out next steps to be taken by the Catholic Church entities here in Canada and our people to repair the many harms and injuries that were suffered by our people during their time in residential school. And so the apology is important, but it's one issue. There are many issues beyond that."

Francis' upcoming Canadian trek — no dates have been finalized — will be the first papal visit to Canada since John Paul II made his third and final visit in 2002, with previous trips to Canada in 1984 and 1987.

"We pray that Pope Francis' visit to Canada will be a significant milestone in the journey toward reconciliation and healing," CCCB president Raymond Poisson said in a statement.

Fontaine, a residential school survivor from Sagkeeng First Nation, about 100 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, will also be Manitoba's representative as part of a 10-person delegation set to travel to Rome in December to meet with the Pope. 

Phil Fontaine receives a citation from Prime Minister Stephen Harper, left, in the House of Commons on June 11, 2008, after Harper apologized for the federal government's role in residential schools. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Fontaine hopes the meeting at the Vatican will allow Canadian Indigenous leaders to present a clear and unified position that will include reference to the apology they expect the Pope will make when he comes to Canada.

"We want to lay out the what we believe are important next steps in terms of repairing the relationship between the Catholic Church here in Canada and our people," Fontaine said.

Current National Chief RoseAnne Archibald is calling on the church to pay reparations, return diocese land to First Nations on whose traditional territories they are situated, invest in more long-term healing initiatives for victims and revoke a 1493 papal bull often referred to as the "doctrine of discovery," which permits colonization and subjugation of Indigenous people, and replace it with a new one that decrees "Indigenous peoples and cultures are valuable, worthy and must be treated with dignity and respect."

Albert McLeod, a co-director of Two-Spirited People of Manitoba, who has ancestry from Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation and the Métis community of Norway House, Man., was shocked when news of Francis' upcoming apostolic journey to Canada broke.

"All things are possible, I guess, but I think it is a good step," McLeod said.

He hopes the Pope's visit will bring some impactful change in Manitoba, including recognition by the Catholic Church that it was wrong in its failure to embrace everyday identities of people, and instead promote racism, homophobia and transphobia. 

Albert McLeod believes the Catholic Church should return land to Indigenous people, including the resources that were extracted out of that land. (University of Winnipeg)

Like Archibald, McLeod believes the Catholic Church should return land to Indigenous people, including the resources that were extracted out of that land.

"There has to be reparations, financial reparations, because a lot of Indigenous people live in poverty because of the intervention or the disruption of the churches in their communities," McLeod said.

"And to me, I would like an apology from all … churches, and to admit what they were doing was wrong."

Former AFN National Chief will 'press' Pope for apology on Canadian soil

11 months ago
Duration 8:05
Former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Phil Fontaine will be part of a delegation to meet with Pope Francis in December, ahead of the papal visit to Canada. Fontaine says they will be "pressing the Holy Father to come to Canada and apologize on Canadian soil", particularly on one of their communities.

With files from Issa Kixen