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Gerald Antoine and Phil Fontaine in St. Peter's Square after Members of the Assembly of First Nations met with Pope Francis at the Vatican on March 31.Fabrizio Troccoli/The Globe and Mail

The Assembly of First Nations emerged from a two-hour meeting with Pope Francis optimistic that he would offer a full apology for more than a century of abuse at the Catholic-run residential schools and visit Canada, where they would like the apology to be made.

The AFN also urged Francis to rescind the papal bulls, or decrees, issued in the 1400s that allowed European explorers to claim lands occupied by non-Christians. The decrees were designed to propel Christian domination in the New World.

Phil Fontaine, former national chief of the AFN, said Francis spent most of Thursday’s meeting in the papal palace listening to stories from him and the other 12 First Nations delegates.

“He did not respond directly for calls for an apology, " Mr. Fontaine told the media at an outdoor press conference in St. Peter’s Square. “If you ask me, am I optimistic leaving our discussion with the Holy Father, I am. But he is going to take today and this evening to reflect on what he heard from us. … And I am hoping that he will be more direct [on Friday] about his visit to Canada and about an apology.”

On the timing of a papal visit, Mr. Fontaine said he believes it will happen fairly soon. “I would expect that some time this summer we’ll be paid a visit by the Holy Father and he’ll come to Canada to apologize.”

Thursday’s private AFN meeting with the Pope was an hour longer than the back-to-back Métis and Inuit meetings on Monday. A final audience with the Pope involving a larger group of Indigenous leaders, elders, youth and knowledge keepers will take place on Friday, the last day of the three groups’ visit to Rome and the Vatican City.

Gerald Antoine, lead delegate for the AFN, NWT regional chief and a residential-school survivor, said that the Doctrine of Discovery “denied us our existence as human beings” and called for its “destruction.”

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“If you look at our history … what happened since they landed on our shores, then basically it’s genocide,” he said. “We need to right the wrong.”

Getting rid of the Doctrine of Discovery would fulfill the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s call to action No. 49, which urges religious groups to repudiate laws and concepts that were used to promote European sovereignty over Indigenous peoples and their land.

Mr. Fontaine said the Pope has to consider “outstanding debt,” referring to the obligation of Catholic entities in Canada to raise $30-million for healing and reconciliation projects, along with land that ought to be returned.

The church has a significant role to play in assisting in the search for missing children, said Kukpi7 Chief Rosanne Casimir of Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation. Her announcement last May of the discovery of 215 unmarked graves – later revised to 200 – near a former school site made headlines around the world.

First, the church should disclose all records and documents in its possession. She also said the search for loved ones means people are re-experiencing the trauma of residential schools. This has created an urgent need for mental-health and cultural support. “It is imperative that the Catholic Church take responsibility, make amends and help those who have been hurt by the legacy of residential schools,” she said.

“This necessarily includes making reparations,” she added. “Redress is needed for individuals to address their own trauma in a positive and healing way.”

In an interview Wednesday in Rome, Archbishop Richard Smith of Edmonton said that a papal apology was not just important for the Indigenous peoples, but for Canadian Catholics in general.

“I think many, many people want to hear [an apology],” he said. “We sometimes forget that a lot of our Catholic people are hurting over this too … . They are hoping too to be hearing concrete steps, concrete action that will show just how serious the church is over this. They have a sense that this Pope in particular knows how to say the right thing at the right time.”

He said that now was the time for Francis to make his apology because of all the horrific new information that has come to light about the schools.

“We had the TRC [Truth and Reconciliation Commission] event and that brought a whole new level of awareness of the history of the residential schools and their troubles,” he said. “Of course, in the last couple of years we’ve had the discovery of unmarked graves and that has triggered a lot of trauma among Indigenous people and the citizens generally. … Where we are in terms of awareness makes this an opportune time to hear something from Pope Francis.”

At a lengthy formal press conference hours after their meeting with the Pope, AFN leaders, elders, youth and spiritual advisers expressed their gratitude for having met the Pope and but also their anger for the trauma caused by the schools.

Fred Kelly, spiritual adviser of the AFN delegation, dedicated a moment of silence to the victims of the residential schools. More than 4,000 students were known to have died and hundreds of unmarked graves have been discovered since last May alone. Some of the sites are now being examined with ground-penetrating radar.

Mr. Kelly is a residential-school survivor himself and described the brutal philosophy that drove their mission. At the age of 4½, he said, his start to school meant having his braids shorn, being deloused, “and beaten up for speaking my language, the only language that I knew.”

“The solution [was] to kill the Indian in the child,” he said. “How I came to hate myself because I am Indian. … Apartheid is gone in South Africa. In Canada, we still have it.”

He said that, at the morning meeting at the Vatican, the AFN gave the Pope a pair of moose-hide moccasins and a white feather as a sign of friendship and brotherhood. “I gave him a spiritual name, " Mr. Kelly said. “I told him in my language that you are now known as ‘White Feather.’ "

First Nations delegates say they are feeling hopeful after a two-hour meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican. Chief Gerald Antoine, the Assembly of First Nations delegation lead, says despite collective grief and pain, there comes hope for change.

The Canadian Press

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