VATICAN CITY (AP) — Indigenous leaders from Canada and survivors of the country’s notorious residential schools meet with Pope Francis starting Monday in hopes of securing a papal apology for abuses committed against them by Catholic priests and school workers.
The meetings, postponed from December because of the pandemic, are part of the Canadian church and government’s efforts to respond to Indigenous demands for justice and reparations — long-standing demands that gained traction last year after the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves outside some of the schools.
In interviews with The Associated Press as they arrived in Rome on Sunday, Indigenous leaders expressed hope that Francis would indeed apologize, though they said their key aim this week is to tell the pope the stories of their people and the abuses they suffered, and for Francis to listen.
“Most of our meeting is going to be elevating the voices of our survivors,” said Cassidy Caron, president of the Métis National Council, who was given a traditional handmade beaded jacket to wear Monday morning for the first audience as well as a pair of red, beaded moccasins to give to the pope.
The moccasins were being presented “as a sign of the willingness of the Métis people to forgive if there is meaningful action from the church,” the group explained in a note. The red dye “represents that even though Pope Francis does not wear the traditional red papal shoes, he walks with the legacy of those who came before him, the good, the great and the terrible.”
Francis has set aside several hours this week to meet privately with the delegations from the First Nations, Métis and Inuit, with a mental health counselor in the room for each session. The delegates then gather Friday as a group for a more formal audience, with Francis delivering an address.
More than 150,000 native children were forced to attend state-funded Christian schools from the 19th century until the 1970s in an effort to isolate them from the influence of their homes and culture, Christianize and assimilate them into mainstream society, which previous governments considered superior.
The Canadian government has admitted that physical and sexual abuse was rampant, with students beaten for speaking their native languages. That legacy of abuse and isolation has been cited by Indigenous leaders as a root cause of epidemic rates of alcohol and drug addiction on reservations.
Nearly three-quarters of the 130 residential schools were run by Catholic missionary congregations.
Last May the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Nation announced the discovery of some 215 gravesites near Kamloops, British Columbia, found using ground-penetrating radar. It was Canada’s largest Indigenous residential school, and the discovery of the graves was the first of numerous, similar grim sites across the country.
Even before the sites were discovered, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission specifically called for a papal apology to be delivered on Canadian soil for the church’s role in the “spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children in Catholic-run residential schools.”
Francis has committed to traveling to Canada, though no date for a visit has been announced.
“Primarily the reconciliation requires action. And we still are in need of very specific actions from the Catholic Church,” said Natan Obed, president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, who is leading the Inuit delegation. He cited the reparations the Canadian church has been ordered to pay, as well as its willingness to find the truth about the scope of abuses at the schools.
“It goes beyond just opening the doors to records, it also goes towards a general willingness to use church resources to help in any way possible,” he told AP.
As part of a settlement of a lawsuit involving the government, churches and the approximately 90,000 surviving students, Canada paid reparations that amounted to billions of dollars being transferred to Indigenous communities.
The Catholic Church, for its part, has paid over $50 million and now intends to add $30 million more over the next five years.
The Argentine pope is no stranger to offering apologies for his own errors and what he himself has termed the “crimes” of the institutional Catholic Church.
During a 2015 visit to Bolivia, he apologized for the sins, crimes and offenses committed by the church against Indigenous peoples during the colonial-era conquest of the Americas. In Dublin, Ireland, in 2018, he offered a sweeping apology to Irish children and women who were sexually and physically abused over generations by church officials.
That same year, he met privately with three Chilean sex abuse survivors whom he had discredited by backing a bishop they accused of covering up sexual abuse. In a series of meetings over the course of a week that echo those scheduled for the Canadian delegates, Francis listened, and apologized.
Phil Fontaine was national chief of the Assembly of First Nations in 2009 when he led an Indigenous delegation to meet with Pope Bendict XVI. At the time, Benedict only expressed his “sorrow at the anguish caused by the deplorable conduct of some members of the church.” But he did not apologize.
Standing outside St. Peter’s Square, Fontaine said a full papal apology, “would be a tremendous boost to these efforts by thousands of survivors that are still looking for healing. They’re definitely anxious to see true reconciliation come about, but reconciliation will not be achieved without the truth.”