Indigenous delegation pursues residential school 'apology … on our lands' from Pope Francis

Six years after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission called for a papal apology for the church's role in administering residential schools, a delegation of First Nations, Inuit and Métis people will travel to Rome in pursuit of a formal apology.

Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya will join the delegation to Rome

A delegation of Indigenous leaders will travel to Rome in December to meet with Pope Francis and ask him to formally apologize for the Catholic Church's role in administering residential schools, which resulted in death, intergenerational trauma, and loss of family ties and culture among Indigenous peoples in Canada. (Gregorio Borgia/The Associated Press)

When Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya left residential school in Inuvik, he never imagined the prospect that in adulthood, he would have the chance to ask the Pope for a formal apology for survivors. 

"As a former residential school survivor, this step of receiving an invitation from the pope for [the church's] role in administering residential schools in Canada, in the Northwest Territories, is overwhelming," said Yakeleya. 

"I left [residential school] with the thought in my mind from the abuses that I suffered. I said to myself, they got away with it," he said.

"Today is different. Today, we know that the only thing we've got is our truth."

This December, Yakeleya will join a delegation of Indigenous leaders travelling to Rome seeking a formal apology from the Pope.

"We seek to hear the words of an apology … of forgiveness. We seek to hear these words on our lands by the Pope," he said.

It's been six years since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission called for the Pope to apologize to survivors, their families, and communities for the Roman Catholic Church's role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children in Catholic-run residential schools. 

Call to Action  58 says the apology should be similar to the 2010 apology offered to Irish victims of abuse by the church. 

Through an Elders council, the Dene Nation is seeking feedback on what survivors would like to see from a papal apology.

"For a survivor such as myself, I would want to say that what happened to me and my family, that the Roman Catholic Church did wrong and asking for his apology to my mother, my grandmothers, grandfathers, the way they treated us, the way they harmed us and that we were children of God," said Yakeleya.

He said forgiveness will be at the centre of the discussion, and that the church must be truly sorry and willing to walk the healing path with Indigenous people.

"Forgiveness … now that is a hard one. Because things that happened in the residential school … is to forgive the unforgivable," he said.

'Still going to deal with the bishops'

Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya, who holds the residential school file for the Assembly of First Nations, will be part of the delegation of Indigenous leaders going to Rome to seek a papal apology. (Randall Mackenzie/CBC)

Yakeleya said the meeting would not likely be used to seek compensation, and will be focused on the apology.

Recently, a report published by CBC shows advocates are critical of a list with inflated claims of $28M of 'in-kind' help for residential school survivors such as programs and counselling, but some of the claims on the list includes further evangelizing people and providing religious services

Canada's Catholic church raised just $4 million out of a promised $25 million, which equates to just 30 cents a person. 

Yakeleya said that while the church and Canada's use of loopholes to shortchange survivors will not be the focus of the delegation to Rome, but it will not be forgotten.

"We're still going to deal with the bishops. That is not over yet," he said. 

Yakeleya said the Canadian bishops are an important connection to the Pope in the apology the delegation seeks and that the delegation must work with them.

However, those who have "tried to escape the full force of [the church's] role in administering residential schools" will not be so easily absolved.

"We will not let them get away with what they're saying … or finding the legal loopholes to dismiss their actions of the past."