A delegation of indigenous Canadians is at the Vatican this week in search of an elusive apology from the Catholic Church for its role in the operation of the country’s residential school system.
The visit, briefly postponed by the pandemic, will be the first time Pope Francis hears directly from survivors of the schools and their descendants.
The pontiff is expected to visit Canada later this year to meet with indigenous communities and to assist with ongoing reconciliation efforts – repairing the relationship between indigenous people, non-indigenous people and the government.
Christian churches were essential in the founding and operation of the schools, which were part of a government policy at the time to attempt to assimilate indigenous children and destroy indigenous cultures and languages.
The Roman Catholic Church in particular was responsible for operating up to 70% of residential schools.
This week’s trip to Rome is the culmination of years of lobbying by indigenous communities for an official papal apology on behalf of the church to survivors and their communities – and it comes at a time in Canada of national reckoning over the residential school system.
The Holy Father will address the full delegation on Friday following separate private meetings during the week with its First Nations, Métis and Inuit representatives.
A landmark 2015 report by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) detailed sweeping failures in ensuring the care and safety of the children at the schools, and it found the system amounted to “cultural genocide”.
For more than a century, residential schools separated over 150,000 indigenous children, many forcibly, from their families and communities. Many experienced physical, mental and emotional abuse, and research by the TRC found that thousands of indigenous children sent to residential schools never made it home.
Since last summer, thousands of unmarked graves, most believed to belong to former students, have been discovered at former school sites across the country.
‘An acknowledgement of wrongdoing’
The trip was organised by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, which has apologised for the suffering experienced at residential schools.
One of the TRC’s main “calls to action” for reconciliation – for the Pope to issue an apology to survivors and their families over the harm experienced at Catholic-run schools – has never been met.
Indigenous delegations unsuccessfully lobbied both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict. The latter issued a statement of regret in 2009, but without an acknowledgement of the church’s wrongdoing.
Dene National Chief Gerald Antoine, who is leading the First Nations delegation, calls this follow-up visit another opportunity to help heal a trauma that cuts across generations.
“We’ve been wronged, and our people have always advocated and insisted that we need to right the wrong,” he said ahead of the trip.
“A papal apology is absolutely required to advance the healing and moving forward.”
On Thursday, speaking from Rome, former Assembly of First Nations National Chief Phil Fontaine said he felt “a real sense of optimism” after meeting with the pontiff.
“We heard the Holy Father say to us very clearly ‘the Church is with you’ – and that’s an incredibly important statement. Because the next thing we will hear is ‘I am sorry’ – I’m absolutely convinced of that.”
On Monday, 10 Métis and eight Inuit delegates emerged from their respective hour-long papal audiences saying they were grateful for a meaningful conversation.
Delegate Mitch Case said survivors had told “hard truths” about their suffering and the unfinished business that remains.
“Residential schools were set up to remove us from the land so that Canada could claim everything,” he said. “And here we are, a century and a half later, with still no process for anyone to say sorry.”
Mr Case presented the pontiff with a pair of red-beaded moccasins, a symbol “of the willingness of the Métis people to forgive if there is meaningful action from the church”, while the Inuit gifted a sealskin stole, sealskin rosary case and two carvings. Each delegate is also said to have received a gift in return from the Holy Father.
In a readout, the Vatican said the meetings had been “characterised by the Pope’s desire to listen and make room for the painful stories brought by the survivors”.
Angie Crerar, a Métis elder and survivor from Alberta, told reporters in St Peter’s Square that Francis was “so kind” and their hug had eased decades worth of pain.
“Today was one of the most wonderful days I ever had in all my life,” she said. “I didn’t understand him, but his smile, his body language, I felt like I love this man.”
Inuit elder Martha Greig, a boarding school survivor from Quebec, said not everybody in her community even wants to pursue the belated apology but it is important nonetheless.
“There has to be a point of forgiveness from both parties, because if you don’t forgive, it eats at you,” she said.
‘A stepping stone in the healing process’
But for many of the delegates, an apology alone is not enough.
“Reconciliation did not begin with a meeting with Pope Francis and it doesn’t end here either. This is just one stepping stone on that journey,” said Métis National Council President Cassidy Caron, who is leading the Métis delegation.
Ms Caron was encouraged by Monday’s meeting but believes more concrete action is required from the church beyond a mere apology.
She is advocating for access to the church’s residential school records so that “we’re able to piece together our history in a better way”, and for the return of cultural artefacts acquired by the church.
The delegates are also expected to push the Pope on financial compensation and the church’s legacy of sexual abuse at residential schools.
Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami President Natan Obed, leader of the Inuit delegates, said he had pressed the Holy Father to personally intervene in the case of Father Johannes Rivoire, a former Nunavut priest accused of multiple sex abuses in the 1960s who now lives in France.
Alleged perpetrators like Father Rivoire must face justice one way or another if they are still alive, Mr Obed claims to have told the Pope.
Ultimately the group, which is intentionally diverse in age and leadership, hopes to impress upon Pope Francis what they see as the spiritual schism caused by a historical injustice.
“It is one thing to apologise, but we’re also carrying a message of diplomacy for the Catholic Church to be aware there is a lot of follow up work to do beyond an apology,” said Cree Nation Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty.
“I do hope that Pope Francis, as a spiritual leader, will set the tone within the Catholic Church.”