The Vatican says Pope Francis is willing to visit Canada where Indigenous leaders have been calling on him to apologize for the Catholic Church’s role in residential schools.
The Vatican said in a statement that the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops invited the Pope to travel to Canada in the “context of the long-standing pastoral process of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.”
The statement said the Pope indicated his “willingness” to do so at an undetermined date.
The development comes ahead of a trip to the Vatican that First Nations, Metis and Inuit leaders plan to make in December to meet with the Pope in the hope of securing an apology.
Cowessess First Nation Chief Cadmus Delorme said a papal visit would be a step toward reconciliation. But he said it would have to come with an apology for the church’s role in residential schools to verify and validate the pain many survivors still live with today.
“An apology is the beginning,” Delorme said. “An apology is required, and the rebuilding of a relationship would follow the apology.”
The Saskatchewan First Nation made international headlines earlier this year with the discovery of potentially 751 unmarked graves near the former Catholic-run Marieval Indian Residential School.
Assembly of First Nations National Chief RoseAnne Archibald echoed the call for a “long overdue” apology. In a post on social media, she added that there should also be criminal charges and reparations.
An estimated 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend residential schools over a century. More than 60 per cent of the schools were run by the Catholic Church.
Marc Miller, minister of Crown-Indigenous relations, said a recognition of the church’s role in the schools is important to Indigenous people.
“That full recognition of harms caused is something that’s long waited for from the Holy Father himself,” Miller said.
There is no indication, at this point, whether an apology from the Pope would be guaranteed during a visit.
The 2015 final report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada chronicled the abuses suffered by Indigenous children at federally funded church-run residential schools. It called for a papal apology to be delivered in Canada.
Those calls have grown louder after the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves at former residential school sites by First Nations in British Columbia and Saskatchewan.
Criticism has also intensified as concerns have been raised that the Catholic Church didn’t properly compensate residential school survivors as agreed to under a landmark settlement.
Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said an apology alone is not good enough.
“The Catholic Church also is responsible for compensation and should provide that compensation to survivors,” said Singh, who added that the church must also provide all documents it has related to the schools.
The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops said in a statement that there have been meaningful discussions with Indigenous people, especially those affected by residential schools.
“We pray that Pope Francis’ visit to Canada will be a significant milestone in the journey toward reconciliation and healing,” said the group’s president, Most Rev. Raymond Poisson.
There has not been a papal visit to Canada since Pope John Paul II came for World Youth Day in Toronto in 2002.
John Paul II was the first pope to come to Canada in 1984. He also visited in 1987 to fulfil a promise to meet with Indigenous people in the Northwest Territories.
The Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program has a hotline to help residential school survivors and their relatives suffering trauma invoked by the recall of past abuse. The number is 1-866-925-4419.
_ With files from Brittany Hobson in Winnipeg and The Associated Press