Politics

Indigenous leaders secure papal audience to set stage for residential school apology

National Indigenous leaders will meet with Pope Francis at the Vatican in December to set the stage for a formal papal apology in Canada for the Roman Catholic Church's role in residential schools, according to the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB).

Meetings with Pope Francis scheduled for the end of December at the Vatican

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 set the stage for a formal papal apology in Canada for the Roman Catholic Church's role in residential schools, according to the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB).

A delegation of First Nations, Métis and Inuit will meet with the Pope separately between December 17 and 20, according to the CCCB.

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

Winnipeg Archbishop Richard Gagnon, president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, told CBC News Pope Francis will speak to the Indigenous delegates directly about the painful legacy of residential schools. 

Gagnon said the Pope is open to delivering an apology in Canada at an "opportune time." He said the Pope is expected to take a path similar to the one that led to his formal apology in Bolivia in 2015.

"What the Pope said and did in Bolivia is what he will do in Canada," he said. "But he will gear it for the specifics of the Canadian situation."

In Bolivia, Pope Francis apologized for sins and crimes committed by the church against Indigenous peoples during the colonial-era conquest of the Americas.

Gagnon said it's important for the Pope to engage with and listen to Indigenous delegates so he can plan for what Gagnon called "post-delegation activities for reconciliation."

"It's about relationships, it's about listening, it's about dialoguing and that's very close to the Pope's heart in this question," Gagnon said.

'We want him to come to our lands'

David Chartrand, vice-president of the Métis National Council, said Indigenous delegates will use their time with the Pope to press him to apologize on Indigenous soil in Canada.

"I'm hoping I can hear from the Pope that he understands the pain," Chartrand said.

"We want him to come to our lands. It will mean so much to us that he comes here and expresses his statement."

The apology would fulfil Call to Action number 58 from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report.

The CCCB has been working with the national Indigenous organizations for over two years to send a delegation of Indigenous representatives to meet the Pope.

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)

Along with national leaders, the Indigenous delegation will consist of elders, knowledge keepers, residential school survivors and young people from across the country, according to the CCCB.

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

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.

Pope Benedict XVI expressed "sorrow" to a delegation from Canada's Assembly of First Nations in 2009 over the abuse and "deplorable" treatment that residential school students suffered by the Roman Catholic Church.

Chartrand said Pope Francis needs to take the next step and ask for forgiveness on the church's behalf.

"He needs to say sorry to the people, that this happened under this powerful church," Chartrand said. 

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 repeated that call 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 urged respect for the rights and culture of Indigenous people, but his statement fell short of an official apology.

Chartrand said he still remains a devout Catholic and is hoping the Pope will formally apologize.

"It's going to happen," Chartrand said.

Chartrand also said he plans to personally raise with Pope Francis concerns about the church's future, especially since many have closed their doors in Canada and several have been destroyed by fire recently.

"There's no priest directly on site anymore in most places," Chartrand said.

"We are worried."

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.

now