Skip to main content

Phil Fontaine in Rome on March 30, 2022. The former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations will meet with Pope Francis on Thursday.Fabrizio Troccoli/The Globe and Mail

Phil Fontaine never expected to get a second chance to meet privately with the Pope to address the Catholic Church’s role in operating residential schools, where abuse was rampant and thousands of Indigenous children died. But he says the discovery last May of unmarked graves near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School has changed the perspectives of Canadians and the church.

The former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, who will see Pope Francis on Thursday as part of the AFN’s private audience with the Catholic leader, says he hopes the meeting leads to a papal apology on Indigenous territory during an anticipated Canadian visit, along with a better understanding of the trauma caused by the residential school system, and the release of church records to help identify students who died at the institutions.

“The Oblate fathers have said that they would open their records, but there are more than the Oblate fathers that ran residential schools, at least the Catholic ones,” Mr. Fontaine said during an interview before travelling to Rome. He noted that Saint Boniface diocese in Winnipeg has shared their documents.

“They’ve provided me records of all the students that were there, students that died during their time at the school, the cause of the deaths, and so on and so forth, and photographs.”

The AFN is one of three Indigenous delegations meeting with the Pope this week to share stories of the intergenerational trauma caused by residential schools and discuss the measures needed for healing and reconciliation. The Métis and Inuit groups met with Francis on Monday, and the three delegations will together have a final audience with him on Friday.

In 2009, three years after the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA) was reached through negotiations between the AFN, federal government and churches, Mr. Fontaine led a small delegation to meet with Pope Benedict to share their experiences of abuse and trauma with the hope it would lead to an apology, something many survivors have long said is needed for reconciliation and healing.

Benedict expressed his sorrow at the anguish caused by “the deplorable conduct of some members of the church” and offered his sympathy and prayerful solidarity, but failed to deliver any apology.

It was a tough blow for Mr. Fontaine, who was forced to attend residential school like many others in his family, including his grandparents, mother and siblings.

Delegates view Indigenous artifacts at Vatican with mix of awe and anger

In Rome, I have seen Indigenous people bring hope and resistance to the Pope’s doorstep

Still, he wanted his fellow survivors to feel like the visit was an accomplishment, so he accepted the acknowledgement as a positive one and told news media the gesture allowed them to move on.

“But I may have misspoke,” he said about his response back then. “I said, ‘well, I hope this puts everything behind us.’ But how can I say that when I knew that there was thousands of claims before Canada and the churches to be resolved?

“It was on my part to try and give some hope to the survivors and the communities that this was an important moment for all of us and not to be discouraged,” the member and former chief of Sagkeeng First Nation in Manitoba said.

Looking back on it now, he says the 2009 meeting was an important step but regrets not being tougher on a papal apology during the IRRSA negotiations.

The IRRSA became the largest settlement in Canadian history and preceded what became the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In 2015, the TRC report exposed the inhumane treatment of more than 150,000 Indigenous children at 139 residential schools operated by the federal government and churches. About 60 per cent of the institutions were run by the Catholic Church, and more than 4,000 children died, the commission found, although experts say that number is much higher.

Mr. Fontaine said the TRC’s 94 calls to action and 10 principles of reconciliation are shaping this week’s meetings with the Pope.

As head of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs in the early 1990s, Mr. Fontaine is considered to be one of the first survivors to break his silence about the sexual, physical and psychological abuses suffered at residential schools. At that time, little was known about the extent and gravity of assaults, and he carved a pathway for other survivors to emerge from the depths of their traumas, sorrow and shame.

“It wasn’t easy convincing the various denominations and the government to accept what we were saying was the truth,” he said. “These weren’t made-up stories. These were real and true events in the lives of thousands of children that attended residential schools.”

As National Chief for the Assembly of First Nations between 1997 and 2000, and again from 2003 to 2009, Mr. Fontaine negotiated the 2006 IRSS agreement with the Canadian government. His wife, Kathleen Mahoney, was the lead litigator for the AFN.

The settlement included the Common Experience Payment for former students who lived at the schools, and a $1.9-billion trust funded by Ottawa to compensate survivors for the abuses they experienced.

“We had set out the AFN plan as to what we thought was necessary to bring matters to a fair and just conclusion,” he said. That included making immediate payments to elderly and ill survivors after the agreement was approved.

Mr. Fontaine said he doesn’t know whether it would have been possible for the negotiations to play out any differently, but he does regret that certain people affected by government and church-run institutions were not included.

“Now we have day scholars, we have day schools and all of that, intergenerational victims,” he said, referring to students who attended but did not reside at the schools. “It would have been so, so difficult to identify who those were and who was ultimately the recipient of whatever settlement was reached.”

On Wednesday in Rome, Mr. Fontaine appeared calm, relaxed and personable as he made his way through the Piazza di Spagna with his nephew, who accompanied him on the trip. His wife, daughter and granddaughters also made the journey.

He said the worst-case scenario for the Vatican meetings would be “if at the end of this we learned that the Pope and his advisers have decided he can’t come to Canada. That would be terrible news, but I think they will follow through.”

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops said last fall that Pope Francis indicated his willingness to visit Canada after the organization extended an invitation. Last year the CCCB issued its own public apology to survivors for the church’s role in the dark legacy of residential schools.

Many survivors, including Mr. Fontaine, say an official apology would be more meaningful if it was made on Indigenous territory.

“Of course, my preference would be for the Pope to apologize in Canada.”

It’s been a long journey for Mr. Fontaine since first opening up about residential schools more than three decades ago, but he remains optimistic about the progress.

“It’s been step by step. But this one is a big step, major step,” he said about returning to the Vatican.

The journey has also meant reconciling his own personal experiences of abuse at the hands of the Catholic Church, as a Catholic himself.

“Well, that remains one of my big challenges,” he said, adding that he has good friends in the church and that people are more open and supportive now.

“It wasn’t always like that.”

He said the re-emergence of traditionalists and traditional practices and ceremonies such as sweat lodges, song and dance among communities has helped him hold onto his faith, and that the separation between survivors and the Catholic Church has also changed.

“I have a cousin and his first cousins that are ordained priests in the Catholic Church,” he said.

So, you know, anything is possible if you have, as they say, if you have faith.”

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.