The Chief of the First Nation that touched off an international reckoning with Canada’s Indian Residential School system says she is disappointed neither the Pope nor the Royal Family plan to stop west of the Rockies to visit the unmarked burials at the site of what was once the country’s largest such school.
Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Nation told reporters Wednesday the past year has been “very traumatic” after she announced on May 27, 2021, that some 200 unmarked and previously undocumented gravesites of children had been found using ground-penetrating radar at the Kamloops Indian Residential School.
The discovery made international headlines and matched scientific rigour with the oral histories of deaths reported by many First Nations survivors of the education system. It also renewed pressure on Pope Francis to visit Canada, which is to happen this July.
But, Ms. Casimir said the papal visit, as planned, does not include a stop in Tk’emlúps territory or anywhere else in British Columbia, and that is a “missed opportunity” for him to take further crucial steps toward reconciling with Indigenous people.
She added her nation and the neighbouring city of Kamloops are located close to an airport and large hospital, and would be able to accommodate the Pope, who is 85 and used a wheelchair for the first time publicly this month as he deals with pain from his knee along with sciatica.
Ms. Casimir, who had personally invited the Pope to visit the site when she and other Indigenous leaders met with him in March, said she has shared this disappointment with Ottawa as well as the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“I thought it would be extremely important,” she said during a press conference where she detailed her nation’s plans next week to commemorate the first anniversary of the discovery.
Neil MacCarthy, head spokesperson for Canada’s fourth papal visit this July, said the Vatican considered a number of “generous invitations” to host the Pope from a number of communities before settling on Quebec City, Edmonton and Iqaluit.
The church recognizes the importance and significance of the Tk’emlups site, but had to also consider the pontiff’s lack of mobility while touring a country of Canada’s size, as well as “other logistical challenges,” he said.
“There is every expectation that Pope Francis will visit a former residential school with an opportunity to be with survivors as well as honouring those buried in unmarked graves,” Mr. MacCarthy said in an e-mailed statement.
“Church officials have been in dialogue with Kukpi7 Chief Casimir and Indigenous leaders at the national and local level regarding the program and planning elements that are currently under way in preparation for the Holy Father’s July visit.”
Ms. Casimir said it was also a missed opportunity that the current royal tour is not coming to Western Canada. She added that as part of the efforts at reconciliation, Indigenous leaders should be able to either communicate with the Queen through writing or a formal visit to discuss Britain’s role in the damage wrought by residential schools.
“That is still my hope,” she said.
A day prior, the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall kicked off their tour of Canada in Newfoundland and Labrador with a speech highlighting the intention of the British monarchy to listen and learn about its legacy of colonialism in Canada, but they did not apologize to Indigenous people for the British Crown’s role in residential schools.
“We must find new ways to come to terms with the darker and more difficult aspects of the past, acknowledging, reconciling and striving to do better,” Prince Charles told a crowd of dignitaries assembled in St. John’s.
Earlier this month, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the spiritual leader of the Anglican Church, toured Canada “to repent and atone” in locations where his denomination’s actions did more harm than good.
The Anglican Church ran some of Canada’s federally funded residential schools, but many more were run by the Catholic Church.
Ms. Casimir, whose nation is deciding on whether to exhume the remains discovered a year ago, said Ottawa is still working on some steps to support her nation, including building a healing centre promised by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during a visit to their territory last October.
“I do have a follow-up meeting with him,” she said.
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