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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with Pope Francis for a private audience at the Vatican on Monday, May 29, 2017.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says Pope Francis has offered to work with him and Canada's Catholic bishops on a "path forward" to issuing a historic papal apology for the church's role in the dark legacy of residential schools.

Mr. Trudeau said the pontiff signalled during a 42-minute private audience that a formal apology would be forthcoming to Indigenous survivors for the sexual, mental and physical abuse they suffered at church-run schools.

"I told him about how important it is for Canadians that we move forward on real reconciliation with Indigenous peoples and highlighted how he could help by issuing an apology," Mr. Trudeau told reporters on Monday.

Related: Ottawa seeks to preserve residential-school testimony

"He reminded me his entire life has been dedicated to supporting marginalized people in the world and fighting for them and he looked forward to working with me and the Canadian bishops to figure out a path forward together."

The Prime Minister invited Pope Francis to Canada to issue a formal apology.

The Liberals came to power in 2015 saying they wanted to reset the relationship with Canada's Indigenous peoples.

Among their promises were an inquiry into why so many aboriginal women are murdered or go missing, and to enact the 94 calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) on residential schools. The calls to action included a papal apology to survivors for the church's role in the tragedy that forced Indigenous children from their homes in an attempt at mass assimilation.

The inquiry, which is hearing its first testimony this week, has been criticized for its slow pace and poor communication. So the new potential for a papal apology gives a much-needed boost to the government as it tries to make headway on its Indigenous goals.

Pope Francis, who has cast himself as the spiritual leader of the world's oppressed, apologized in 2015 for the crimes committed by the church against Indigenous peoples of Latin America during conquest on the continents.

In a March meeting with Rwandan President Paul Kagame, the pontiff asked God's forgiveness for the failures of the Catholic church during the 1994 Rwandan genocide and the violence perpetrated by priests.

The Vatican issued its own statement on the discussions with Mr. Trudeau, but did not mention a possible papal apology or when the Pope might visit Canada.

"In the cordial discussions, the good bilateral relations between the Holy See and Canada were evoked, along with the contribution of the Catholic Church to the social life of the country," the statement said. "The parties then focused on the themes of integration and reconciliation, as well as religious freedom and current ethical events."

Most of the residential schools were run by Catholics, which is why an apology from the Pope would be so important to Indigenous communities.

In a 2009 meeting with an Indigenous delegation from Canada that included Phil Fontaine, a residential school survivor and then-grand chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Pope Benedict expressed "sorrow" and "sympathy" and condemned those who had harmed children. That statement of regret was accepted but it was not a full apology, Mr. Fontaine said.

"If Francis comes to Canada and pronounces this formal apology on Canadian soil, that would be wonderful. The symbolic value of such a statement in our homelands cannot be underestimated," he said, explaining that it is important that such a statement be made in Canada because "this is where the abuse took place, this is where the experiences occurred on our homeland."

Perry Bellegarde, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, agreed that it would mean a lot to residential school survivors to hear an apology from the head of the Catholic church, especially if it was offered Canada.

"Coming to Canada to be on our ancestral lands and our treaty territories would be a very huge step on the path to reconciliation," Mr. Bellegarde said. The National Chief said he would also like to hear the Pope apologize for the "illegal and racist" papal bulls of the 15th century that gave Christian explorers the right to claim any lands they discovered that were not inhabited by Christians.

The Anglican, Presbyterian and United churches, which also ran residential schools, have already apologized to the survivors. The TRC report said the church-run schools attempted to assimilate Indigenous children by removing their culture, identity and language.

Chief Wilton Littlechild, who was one of the TRC commissioners, said he met with the Pope last year and invited him to come to Canada to issue the apology. "So this follow with Prime Minister Trudeau today is really great news," Mr. Littlechild said.

Former prime minister Stephen Harper mentioned the commission's finding during a 10-minute audience with Pope Francis in 2015, but did not seek a formal apology.

Mr. Trudeau said he thanked the Pope for his global leadership on the environment during their private discussions in the Vatican's Apostolic Palace. Pope Francis wrote an encyclical in 2015 calling for urgent and drastic cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions.

"We talked about how important it is to both highlight the scientific basis of protecting our planet with the moral and ethical obligation to lead and to build a better future for all peoples on this earth," Mr. Trudeau said.

The Pope gave the Prime Minister a copy of the encyclical on the environment as well as ones on family and evangelism and a gold medal marking his four years as pontiff. Mr. Trudeau gave the Pope a Montagnais-French dictionary and a set of books from Canada's National Jesuit Library.

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