Indigenous groups say they are worried that many residential school survivors will not be able to attend Pope Francis’s appearances across Canada later this month, owing to ticket shortages and poor communication from the Catholic Church and the federal government.
The Pope is scheduled to arrive in Edmonton on July 24, as part of a tour that will also include stops in Quebec and Nunavut. His Edmonton-area itinerary includes a visit to the site of the former Ermineskin Indian Residential School in Maskwacis, south of the city, where he is expected to issue an apology for the church’s role in Canada’s residential school system.
The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) has said including residential school survivors in events during the papal visit is a priority and the organization has promised to supply funding to help survivors attend. Last week, the federal government made its own financial pledge: $35-million in supports for survivors and Indigenous communities during the visit.
But Angela White, executive director of the Indian Residential School Survivors Society (IRSSS) in British Columbia, said her organization, like others across the country, is struggling to piece together information about tickets and funding for survivors.
“We’re all kind of just waiting and wondering what’s going on, and how things are going to be happening, and I think we’re just doing the best we can with what information we have,” she said.
About 60 per cent of Canada’s residential schools were run by the Catholic Church. The institutions – which operated for more than a century as part of what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has called a policy of cultural genocide against Indigenous people – were thrust to the forefront of public consciousness last year when several First Nations announced they had located possible unmarked graves on former school grounds.
During a delegation to the Vatican this past spring, representatives of Indigenous groups requested that the Pope issue an apology in Canada. A similar request was among the calls to action in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report, released in 2015.
With that apology seemingly just days away, Ms. White said the CCCB and the federal government have not been communicating clearly with survivors and Indigenous communities about the logistics of the papal visit and how to access the promised funding. The IRSSS has been getting funding from B.C.’s Indigenous-run First Nations Health Authority, she said.
She said the IRSSS does not know how many tickets will be available for survivors. Her team has twice tried to secure tickets online, she said, but both times supplies ran out immediately.
The B.C. Assembly of First Nations told its regional chiefs and leadership in a letter dated July 11 that the CCCB had offered assurances that no survivors would be turned away from the Pope’s events.
But, at a news conference in Edmonton late last week, the papal visit’s organizers announced that attendance will be restricted, owing to space limitations and safety concerns.
Ms. White said the IRSSS is sending eight people to the event at Maskwacis to provide cultural supports for B.C.-based survivors. She has heard of a large group from local B.C. communities that is planning to drive to the event in buses and vans.
The IRSSS will also be hosting three public events in B.C. where survivors and their families will be able to watch livestreams of the Pope’s appearances.
The CCCB said in a statement that it understands the papal visit has come together quickly, but that attendance by Indigenous people remains a top priority. The statement said the bishops’ group has been working collaboratively with Indigenous partners.
On Friday, the CCCB announced it was delaying the release of the final block of tickets for a papal mass at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium until July 22 to ensure more time for survivors to access their reserved tickets for the event, “in recognition of recent funding supports by the federal government.”
Matthew Gutsch, a spokesperson for Crown-Indigenous Relations and Indigenous Services Canada, made note, in a statement, of Ottawa’s $35-million funding pledge. He did not address questions about concerns from Indigenous communities, but said the federal government “is prepared to support additional requests as needed.”
The Assembly of First Nations’ regional chief for Quebec-Labrador, Ghislain Picard, said his organization was given only a month’s notice of the papal events in Quebec City and he wishes there had been more time to prepare.
“We’re challenged in organizing an event that would normally take more than one year to organize,” he said.
Mr. Picard said accessing federal funding has been difficult and that the best option for communities may be to self-fund and hope to be reimbursed by the government afterward.
He added that the prospect of hearing the Pope issue an apology on Canadian soil for abuses at residential schools is drawing many survivors to the events. His office is receiving thousands of requests to attend, he said, and is ultimately responsible for providing communities with information, so local leaders can decide who gets to go.
Cindy Woodhouse, the Assembly of First Nations’ regional chief for Manitoba, said her office is still trying to secure tickets. She does not believe there will be enough for all the survivors who want them.
“We’re pushing for space for our Manitoba survivors to ensure that, if they want to go, we have the capacity for them to go,” Ms. Woodhouse said.
She added that she wishes the visit had been better organized. Many details “should have been figured out six months ago,” she said.
AFN Manitoba received federal funding for mental health supports for survivors on Wednesday, she said, and the province’s Indigenous communities are working to request funding from the federal government for survivors to travel to the events.
“It’s been difficult,” she said. “People are waiting and waiting for information, and we’re getting it last minute and it’s hard to plan like that. But we’re doing the best we can with limited resources that we do have.”
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