Politics

Pope's meeting with Métis survivors of residential schools was 'comfortable' but did not include apology

Pope Francis sat and listened to three Métis survivors of church-run residential schools tell their stories during a private audience at the Vatican on Monday — but he did not issue an apology for abuses that took place at the schools, Métis National Council president Cassidy Caron said.

'He listened,' Métis National Council president says of 1st of several audiences with Indigenous groups

Members of the Métis delegation came out of their private meeting with Pope Francis on Monday at the Vatican feeling optimistic that progress can be made with the Roman Catholic Church. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details

Pope Francis sat and listened to three Métis survivors of church-run residential schools tell their stories during his private audience at the Vatican with the first of three Indigenous delegations Monday.

"It was a very comfortable meeting," said Métis National Council president Cassidy Caron.

"Our survivors did an incredible job in that meeting of standing up and telling their truths. They were so brave and so courageous, and we wanted to make sure we elevated their voices, and that's exactly what we did today."

The Pope did not issue an apology for the abuses that took place at the Catholic-run, government-funded schools for Indigenous children that existed throughout Canada from the 1870s to 1997. He did, however, speak of "truth, justice and healing," Caron said.

"I take that as a personal commitment," she said.

Two fiddlers lead the Métis delegation out of a private meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican on Mon. March 28, 2022. (Gregorio Borgia/AP)

The Pope also repeated his promise to travel to Canada at some point and meet with survivors, Caron said. A date has not yet been set for that visit.

The meeting took place in the Pope's private library at the Apostolic Palace. It's the room where Pope Francis held a private meeting in 2017 with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — who at the time asked the Pope for a residential school apology

Caron said delegates sat in a semi-circle, with five Canadian Roman Catholic bishops on one side, Métis delegates on the other and the Pope in the middle.

She said Pope Francis took about 10 minutes to speak to the delegates with the help of a translator. She said she could see sorrow in his face when he heard the stories of residential school survivors and children lost from the institutions.

WATCH | Métis National Council president Cassidy Caron describes meeting with Pope:

Métis leader describes 'comfortable' meeting with Pope

3 months ago
Duration 3:17
Métis National Council president Cassidy Caron said Pope Francis spoke of 'truth, justice and healing' during a meeting with Métis survivors of residential schools. The Métis delegation was the first of three Indigenous delegations to Rome to meet with the pontiff.

Métis Nation of Alberta elder Angie Crerar, who was one of the survivors at Monday's meeting, said the encounter helped ease the pain of her residential school experience.

"Today was one of the most wonderful days I ever had in all my life," Crerar said. "I even got a hug."

But the 85-year-old said she won't have a sense of closure until more of the children missing from residential schools are found.

"We want to get our kids home," Crerar said. "Then I will celebrate right there."

The meetings are part of a series of papal audiences in Rome this week to discuss the impact of the Roman Catholic Church's role in operating the majority of residential schools in Canada, and how the church can try to make amends.

Crerar spoke with CBC before the meeting and said childhood memories flooded back to her as she embarked on her journey to Rome.

"Very excited, very humbled, so very grateful," she said ahead of the hour-long meeting.

Métis National Council President Cassidy Caron hugs Crerar, a residential school survivor, who is part of the Métis delegation. The Métis delegation is the first of three Indigenous delegations, along with First Nations people and Inuit, scheduled for audiences with the Pope this week. (Cassidy Caron/Supplied)

On the way to Rome, Crerar wore a deep blue blazer and red Métis sash that represents the blood Métis shed fighting for their rights.

While she waited to depart the Montréal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport, Crerar was reminded of what helped her survive nearly a decade of residential school. 

"Although they tried to change us, to say that our family was no good … my mom and dad taught us kindness, to love, respect," Crerar said.

WATCH | Métis elder desribes her residential school experience:

Métis elder describes what she endured at residential school ahead of meeting with Pope

3 months ago
Duration 1:17
Métis Nation of Alberta Elder Angie Crerar recalls what helped her survive nearly 10 years at the Roman Catholic-run St. Joseph School in Fort Resolution, N.W.T.

Crerar said she called on Pope Francis to both issue an apology and to help identify the children who went missing from residential schools.

"These children have the right to have a name and identity," Crerar said.

Demand to access all church and residential school records

Caron, meanwhile, pushed for unfettered access to church and residential school records.

"Putting names to the children is incredibly important in the healing journey of our people," she said.

During a press conference following the meeting, Canadian Catholic bishops said there are no such documents at the Vatican. But religious entities have files in Rome and Canada; the Oblates are extending access to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.

WATCH | The significance of the pope's meeting with Indigenous delegates:

What the Pope’s meeting with Indigenous communities could mean for reconciliation

3 months ago
Duration 1:17
Indigenous delegates are meeting with Pope Francis in hopes he’ll commit to a formal apology for the Catholic Church’s role in running residential schools in Canada. Here’s why it matters and how it could change things.

Caron also called on the church to pay more in reparations to survivors, citing the $30 million Canadian bishops have pledged to raise.

"There should be no question why these funds have not been paid to our people yet," she said.

Crerar said she will never forget the day in 1946 when she not only became a residential school student, but a mother to her two younger sisters aged five and three.

The RCMP took her and her siblings on a plane away from Yellowknife after her mother died of tuberculosis. 

"I've got lots of scars," Crerar said. "I wear [them] with pride."

Longtime friend supporting elder's visit to Rome

Crerar spent nine years at the Roman Catholic-run St. Joseph School in Fort Resolution, N.W.T., from the age of eight to 17.

Audrey Poitras, a longtime friend of Crerar's and president of the Alberta Métis Nation, sat with her arm around her at Gate 60 on Sunday.

Poitras called Crerar last October to tell her she was selected by the Métis Nation to be part of its primary delegation for the Vatican meetings.

"She [Crerar] said to me, 'I'll go with you,'" Poitras said. "I said, 'But I'm not going,' and she's like, 'Well, I'm going with you.'"

Métis Nation of Alberta president Audrey Poitras, left, is supporting Elder Angie Crerar during her trip to the Vatican to meet Pope Francis this week to discuss the impact of the Roman Catholic Church's role in operating residential schools in Canada. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

Poitras watched some of this week's meetings from a screen in a nearby room and will attend the pontiff's last audience on Friday. That audience will be public and will include members of all the Métis, First Nations and Inuit delegations, along with their family members and supporters. 

Back in 2004, Poitras said Crerar pushed her to collect stories about Métis residential school survivors because she felt it was time for them to be told. 

The book Métis Memories of Residential Schools contains the stories of 24 Métis residential school survivors, including Crerar.

"I'm really pleased that I'm able to go with her and share with her another leg of her journey," Poitras said.

"She's the person who I look up to."

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.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Olivia Stefanovich

Senior reporter

Olivia Stefanovich is a senior reporter for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau based in Ottawa. She previously worked in Toronto, Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. Connect with her on Twitter at @CBCOlivia. Story tips welcome: olivia.stefanovich@cbc.ca.

with files from CBC's Juanita Taylor and Kate Kyle

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