Editor’s note: Emotional support or assistance for those who are affected by the residential school system can call the Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program hotline at 1-866-925-4419.
An Indigenous delegation is to meet with Pope Francis at the Vatican in early spring to discuss reconciliation and healing after a visit was postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A joint statement from the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and national organizations representing First Nations, Inuit and Métis people says the delegation is to meet with the Pope in Rome the week of March 28. A final audience with him is to take place April 1.
“The health and safety of all delegates remain our first priority,” said the statement released Tuesday.
“In the weeks ahead, we will monitor conditions leading up to the revised travel dates and continue our dialogue with delegates, public health officials, as well as the relevant government and international authorities, travelling only when we feel it is safe to do so.”
The trip was put on hold a week before the trip was to take place in December.
Indigenous groups and Canadian Catholic bishops said at the time that the decision was heartbreaking, but prudent, given how quickly the Omicron variant was spreading and the uncertainty that posed.
The risks were too great, they said, particularly for elders who would have travelled, and who could potentially bring back the virus to their remote communities, where COVID-19 can pose a higher risk due to crowded housing and a lack of health care.
The groups said the meeting would not be replaced with a virtual delegation, because it was important to talk face to face with the Pope.
The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops is to cover the travel costs.
The plan is to have 25 to 30 Indigenous people, including elders, residential school survivors and youth, meet with Pope Francis. First Nations, Métis and Inuit are to have separate meetings with him before a sitting with all three together.
Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Chief Rosanne Casimir is among those invited to visit. She has been outspoken in calling for all the records to be released by the Catholic Church and Canadian government. It comes as the community continues to search the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in B.C., where preliminary findings show remains of 215 people – believed to be children – found buried in unmarked graves.
Other searches are ongoing at the sites of other former residential schools. The Williams Lake First Nation recently revealed a preliminary search found 93 possible burial sites around the former St. Joseph Mission Residential School using ground-penetrating radar.
The delegation’s theme is how Indigenous Peoples and the Catholic Church can move forward together toward healing and reconciliation. It’s expected Indigenous participants will also be able to share their expectations for a papal visit to Canada.
“We remain committed to walking toward healing and reconciliation,” the joint statement said.
Last year, the Vatican announced that the Pope was willing to make that pilgrimage. Indigenous leaders have said it must come with an apology.
Calls for the Pope to apologize for the church’s role in the schools have intensified since the discovery last year of unmarked graves at former residential school sites.
Over a century, an estimated 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend residential schools. More than 60 per cent of the schools were run by the Catholic Church.
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