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Prior to this month, the head of the Catholic Church had visited Canada only three times. These things don’t happen often, so it is remarkable that Pope Francis, hobbled by age, made the trip here this week.

What makes it historic is that the Pope primarily came to apologize to the Indigenous peoples of Canada for the significant role the church played in the operation of residential schools, and the mental, physical and sexual abuse inflicted on Indigenous children.

Not surprisingly, the Pope’s apology was met with mixed reactions. Some Indigenous people greeted it warmly and said they felt it was sincere. Some went as far as to say that it opened the door to forgiveness on their part, and to the possibility of personally moving on.

Others, not so much. Murray Sinclair, the former senator and member of the Peguis First Nation in Manitoba who chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, says the Pope fell short when he apologized for the misdeeds of individual Catholics, but not for the Church as a whole.

The TRC’s research found that the Catholic Church, which operated at least 60 per cent of residential schools, was more than just a passive contractor to the federal government, which funded and oversaw the residential school system starting in the 1880s.

“There are clear examples in our history where the church called for the government of Canada to be more aggressive and bold in its work to destroy Indigenous culture, traditional practices and beliefs,” Mr. Sinclair wrote after the Pope’s apology.

There are many who will agree that the Pope’s statement was too limited, and overly cautious. Even so, the fact that his visit was dedicated to contrition and reconciliation makes this one of the more significant events in the long history of the fight for Indigenous rights in Canada.

It’s also a reminder to non-Indigenous Canadians, and to the world at large, of the degree to which First Nations, Metis and Inuit peoples have become a political force in this country. Their concerns have gone from peripheral to mainstream.

Protocol may have required that the visit be organized by Ottawa, and that Pope Francis be greeted by the prime minister and the governor-general, but the pontiff only came because Indigenous people demanded it.

It wasn’t easy. The Catholic Church long resisted calls to apologize, even as other churches made amends. But the Vatican could not look away last year, after two First Nations discovered hundreds of unmarked graves near the sites of two former Catholic-run residential schools. Many of the graves are believed to hold the remains of children who died of preventable diseases, far from their families, and were buried with little or no ceremony.

Getting a remorseful Pope on a plane to Canada is one of the biggest moments to come out of many decades of struggle by Indigenous people.

They have fought in courts, mostly successfully, to have the treaties they signed respected (and the many places where there were no treaties recognized as such), and they fought to have their rights affirmed in Section 35 of the Canadian Constitution. They won $2-billion in compensation and a prime ministerial apology for residential school survivors in 2008 and, just this month, the Assembly of First Nations reached a $20-billion settlement with Ottawa related to the chronic underfunding of child welfare.

And for all the state’s past attempts to eliminate their cultures, Indigenous people are the fastest growing and youngest cohort in the country, at 4.9 per cent of the population.

There is still a long way to go. Too many Indigenous people – especially those living on First Nations reserves – are worse off than their non-Indigenous neighbours, with poorer health, lower incomes, higher unemployment and higher drop-out rates. They are overrepresented in prison and in foster care. And they continue to have to resort to the courts to keep Ottawa moving forward on critical issues, which is frustrating in an era that is supposed to be about reconciliation.

But though there is disappointment that the head of the Catholic Church didn’t say and do more, the fact that the Pope made this “penitential pilgrimage” can be seen as another demonstration of the persistence and resilience of Indigenous people, and where it has brought them. The Vatican doesn’t take just anyone’s calls.

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