A group of First Nations chiefs say next week’s papal visit offers an opportunity for healing and is an important step toward reconciliation, but that it must also include truth and justice for residential school survivors and their families.
At a joint news conference in Edmonton on Thursday, one of the chiefs, Ermineskin Cree Nation’s Randy Ermineskin, said the visit represents a chance for some of those survivors to find closure.
“We want the truth about what happened at the schools to be shared with the public … Everyone needs to know what happened to us, and that it will never happen again,” he said.
George Arcand Jr., Grand Chief of the Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations, added that the papal visit is only one step in an ongoing healing process. Crucial next steps, he said, include long-term commitments from both the federal government and churches to improving services for Indigenous people, such as mental-health supports.
“There needs to be justice. There needs to be an opportunity for the wrongs that were done … to be fixed,” he said.
Pope Francis will embark on his six-day trip to Canada, the first papal visit to this country in two decades, on Sunday. The tour will include stops in the Edmonton area, Quebec City and Iqaluit. Its organizers have said the Pope’s focus will be on healing, reconciliation and acknowledgment of the church’s role in running the majority of Canada’s residential schools, which Indigenous children were once forced to attend.
On Monday, the Pope will stop at the former site of the Ermineskin Indian Residential School in Maskwacis, south of Edmonton, and offer a prayer there, said Laryssa Waler, media lead for the papal visit. Then, at nearby Maskwa Park, he will issue an apology for the church’s role in abuses at the institutions, she added. Thousands of Inuit, Métis and First Nations survivors are expected to gather to hear the Pope speak about the schools’ harmful legacy.
About 700 accredited members of the media from across Canada and around the world will be present for the visit, church organizers said at a press briefing on Thursday. Broadcasters will be providing livestreams of the Pope’s activities and his events will be translated into multiple languages, including various Indigenous languages, French and English.
Dene National Chief Gerald Antoine said in an interview earlier this week that Pope Francis’s apology to residential school survivors is “long overdue,” and that it will need to be accompanied by concrete actions after the historic visit.
“Survivors are seeking an acknowledgment of the truth, an acknowledgment of responsibilities and an expression of remorse and apology,” along with a commitment to support and assist Indigenous families moving forward, he said.
Mr. Antoine, who is also the Northwest Territories regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations and the organization’s portfolio holder for residential schools, will be in Maskwacis on Monday. He said he hopes the apology fully acknowledges the role and the culpability of the Catholic Church, and the “many harms our people’s children experienced in the residential institutions it was responsible for managing.”
Among the concrete actions for which Mr. Antoine is calling is the revocation of the “doctrine of discovery,” a legal concept derived from 15th-century papal edicts. The doctrine provided the justification for European countries to claim sovereignty and title over Indigenous lands.
Mr. Antoine is also calling for reparations and for the church to share historical records that relate to residential schools. “We need to make sure that all these things are provided on the table, to see exactly how things occurred,” he said. “In order to move forward, we also need to understand those things.”
More than 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children were taken from their communities so they could attend residential schools. The stated goal of the institutions, which operated for more than a century, was to separate children from their families and culture, as part of what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has called a policy of cultural genocide.
In Alberta, Mr. Arcand Jr., who is also chief of Alexander First Nation, told the joint news conference that he sees the Pope’s apology as “a way forward for our people’s road to healing.”
The papal visit, he said, “is for survivors and for Indigenous people in search of answers, the truth and validation. The harms cannot be undone. But it’s important for us to come together this way to support one another.”
“It doesn’t end here. There’s a lot to be done. This is only the beginning.”
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.