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Pope Francis holds an ordination mass on Oct. 17, 2021 at St. Peter's basilica in The Vatican.ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images

A delegation of Indigenous groups and Canadian bishops has postponed a visit to the Vatican scheduled for later this month because of concerns about the Omicron variant.

The Assembly of First Nations, Métis National Council, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) said in a joint statement on Tuesday that after “careful assessment of the uncertainty and potential health risks” surrounding international travel, they decided to reschedule to the earliest opportunity in 2022.

The groups said the decision to postpone was a “heartbreaking one” made after careful consultation with delegates, family members, community leaders, public health officials and leaders of national Indigenous organizations. They also noted that many elderly members of the delegation live in remote communities, and the risk of infection and “fluid nature” of the global situation poses too great a threat at this time.

The visit had been scheduled for the week of Dec. 18. In June, the CCCB and the national Indigenous organizations announced they would send delegates to meet the Pope.

At the time, the bishops said the delegation to the Holy See represented an “important step on the journey of reconciliation and shared healing” for Indigenous people and the Catholic Church in Canada.

Pope Francis has agreed to come to Canada, although the timing is not yet known. The Holy See has long faced calls, including from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that spent six years examining the effects of residential schools, to issue an apology to survivors of the institutions in Canada. He will be under a high degree of pressure to make such an apology during his visit.

Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith said on Tuesday that everyone involved in planning the meeting was disappointed about the postponement, but he said Indigenous leaders he has spoken to agreed it was the right decision, particularly with elders taking part.

“The leadership really, really wanted to do everything we could to ensure, before anything else, the health and well-being particularly of the elderly,” he said.

Natan Obed, the president of ITK, said Tuesday in an interview that he believes the Catholic Church is sincere in wanting to make sure the meeting with the Pope happens at the Vatican, adding he has no doubt it will be rescheduled.

When asked about the significance of the meeting in Rome, Mr. Obed said there is “always an opportunity to teach,” and the Pope has expressed willingness to listen to Inuit, First Nations and Métis and the concerns they have in relation to the Catholic Church.

Mr. Obed said there is no shortage of challenges to overcome in the relationship with the Catholic Church and Indigenous peoples in Canada, noting “significant work” such as an apology for residential school survivors, the need for the church to comply with the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement (IRSSA) and reconciliation efforts.

The settlement agreement was reached between legal counsel for former students, legal counsel for the churches, Indigenous organizations and the federal government.

As part of the arrangement reached in 2006, the Catholic Church, which operated about 60 per cent of residential schools, had the largest set of financial commitments. They included a $29-million cash payment, $25-million of in-kind services provided by the church and an additional $25-million in a “best efforts” national fundraising campaign. According to court submissions from the government, church officials violated the terms of the settlement agreement by reallocating funds meant for reconciliation and healing.

In September, the CCCB announced “healing and reconciliation initiatives” of $30-million over a period of up to five years.

At a virtual special chiefs’ assembly of the AFN on Tuesday, National Chief RoseAnne Archibald called on the Catholic Church to make reparations, including to return diocesan properties to First Nations on whose traditional land they are situated. She also said long-term healing initiatives are needed beyond the commitment of $30-million.

Since unmarked burial sites were found earlier this year at former residential schools, the church has faced renewed questions from survivors about why it was released from remaining payments promised in the settlement agreement.

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller had said he personally wanted to get to the bottom of why Ottawa abandoned an appeal of a court ruling that released the church from its settlement obligations. In an interview on Monday, he said it was “moral failure” on the part of the government and that an appeal should have been pursued.

He also said that even if no legal recourse remains on the appeal, individuals still want answers on the decision, noting it took place during a transition in government after the 2015 election.

Mr. Obed said on Tuesday that the Catholic Church has a moral requirement to make good on its obligations under the settlement agreement.

“Perhaps there are no legal instruments to demand compliance now, but that does not mean that the Catholic Church is free and clear from its moral requirement to respect residential school survivors in Canada.”

With a report from James Keller

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