An Indigenous delegation to visit Pope Francis at the Vatican is now slated for the end of March, a trip some residential school survivors hope will pave the way for a papal apology in Canada.
The delegation of First Nations, Métis and Inuit representatives, which includes survivors of residential schools along with Indigenous leaders, was originally scheduled to meet with the Pope in December but the visit was postponed because of health concerns over the Omicron variant.
The trip is now set for March 28 to April 1, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops said in a release.
“We remain committed to walking toward healing and reconciliation and very much look forward to the opportunity for Indigenous elders, knowledge keepers, residential school survivors, and youth to meet with Pope Francis,” the CCCB said.
Pope Francis will meet with each of the three Indigenous groups starting on March 28, with one-hour sessions scheduled per day. A final audience with all participants will happen on April 1. The CCCB is planning the trip, along with the Assembly of First Nations, Métis National Council, and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami.
The trip is planned ahead of the Pope’s promised visit to Canada, though a date for that has not been scheduled. For years, survivors have asked for a public apology from the Pope over the Catholic Church’s role in running residential schools. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission also asked for a papal apology to be made in Canada, a call to action in 2015 that the church has not yet fulfilled.
Métis National Council president Cassidy Caron, who will be the spokesperson for the MNC delegation, said she is glad a new date has been set. “I look forward to continuing to work with Métis Nation citizens to ensure our stories, especially those of Métis survivors, are shared with Pope Francis,” she said in an e-mail.
About 30 representatives will form part of the official delegation; the April 1 final audience with the Pope is expected to be a larger group of between 150 and 200 participants, including some family members of survivors. Six bishops are also due to attend; the costs of the delegation are being covered by the CCCB.
Residential school survivors have said they are seeking several responses from the church: an apology, reparations, and a commitment to share all historical documents about residential schools, whether they are in Canada or housed in the Vatican’s archives.
Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami president Natan Obed said he is encouraged by the confirmation of new dates.
“This visit, and a direct personal encounter between Pope Francis and Inuit delegates, is a necessary part of our shared healing,” said Mr. Obed, who will lead the Inuit delegation, which will include six other Inuit representatives. He added they are “committed to finally sitting down for an action-oriented discussion with Pope Francis.”
The plans could shift again if public-health concerns resurface.
The health and safety of the delegates “remain our first priority,” the statement said. In the weeks ahead, the CCCB will monitor conditions leading up to the trip and “continue our dialogue with delegates, public-health officials as well as the relevant government and international authorities, travelling only when we feel it is safe to do so.”
The Catholic Church ran the majority of Canada’s government-funded residential schools, which operated for more than a century. At least 150,000 Indigenous children were removed from their families, and forced into a system designed to strip them of their language and culture. More than 4,000 children died at the schools, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation has found, amid disease, abuse, neglect and malnourishment.
The Vatican visit is planned as the church is starting a new national fundraising campaign for reconciliation efforts, and after a public outcry over the discoveries of hundreds of unmarked graves last year at former residential school sites.
Last week, Williams Lake First Nation in B.C. was the latest to announce preliminary results of its investigation: A search using ground-penetrating radar and other techniques near a former Roman Catholic Church institution showed 93 potential human burials, of which 50 appear not associated with a historical cemetery.
Meanwhile, Canada’s bishops announced they will create a new registered charity to support the fundraising campaign, which has a target of $30-million over up to five years. A previous campaign raised just $3.7-million of a targeted $25-million, funds that were meant to go toward healing initiatives.
A CCCB statement acknowledged the problems in the earlier, failed campaign. “We have recognized the shortcomings of this [previous] campaign and learned critically important lessons to ensure that the Indigenous reconciliation fund is fully funded and well-managed with appropriate oversight.”
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