The national assembly of Catholic bishops in Canada is preparing to send a delegation of Indigenous people to the Vatican for a visit with Pope Francis to discuss Canada’s residential school system and the role the Catholic church played.
In a statement Thursday, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) said it has been preparing a delegation for the past two years, but plans for the trip were delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The group said it now plans to send the delegation before the end of the year.
“This pastoral visit will include the participation of a diverse group of Elders/Knowledge Keepers, residential school survivors and youth from across the country,” the CCCB said.
“The event will likewise provide Pope Francis with a unique opportunity to hear directly from Indigenous Peoples, express his heartfelt closeness, address the impact of colonization and the implication of the Church in the residential schools, so as to respond to the suffering of Indigenous Peoples and the ongoing effects of intergenerational trauma.”
The Catholic church has faced renewed scrutiny over its participation in Canada’s residential school system since the discovery of the bodies of 215 children in unmarked graves on the site of a former school in Kamloops, B.C.
On Sunday, Pope Francis said he is following news of the findings “with pain” and that he joined with Canada’s bishops in “expressing my closeness to the Canadian people traumatized by the shocking news.”
Yet he stopped short of apologizing for the church’s role in running more than 60 per cent of Canada’s residential schools from 1890 until 1969. The Catholic church as a whole has never issued a formal apology.
Some 150,000 First Nations, Metis and Inuit children were forcibly sent to residential schools, where many suffered abuse. Ongoing research by the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation shows at least 4,100 died in the schools amid neglect.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and First Nations across Canada have urged the church to apologize and to release records from the schools — a call that has so far been met with what Trudeau on Friday called “resistance.”
Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett on Monday said the Pope’s statement “doesn’t go far enough.”
The CCCB said Thursday that it has “pledged true and deep commitment to renewing and strengthening relationships with Indigenous Peoples across the land,” with the “strong encouragement” of Pope Francis.
The group said the delegation will represent “an important step on the journey of reconciliation and shared healing for Indigenous Peoples and the Church in Canada.”
“It is our hope that these forthcoming encounters – and the important collaboration and partnership that has supported the planning – will lead to a shared future of peace and harmony between Indigenous Peoples and the Catholic Church in Canada,” they said.
Church leaders have said the church did not have a unified role in the residential school system as it has a decentralized structure, meaning decisions are made by individual dioceses or orders.
Throughout the years, individual bishops have apologized for the role that different dioceses played in the residential school system. Vancouver’s archbishop apologized following the discovery in Kamloops.
Richard Gagnon, president of the CCCB, expressed his “sorrow for the heartrending loss of the children” but offered no formal apology.
In 2018, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops announced the Pope could not personally apologize for residential schools, even though he has not shied away from recognizing injustices faced by Indigenous people around the world.
–With files from the Canadian Press