The Indigenous delegation headed to the Vatican to meet with Pope Francis has delayed its trip over growing concerns about the Omicron COVID-19 variant.
The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Assembly of First Nations, the Métis National Council, and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami issued a joint statement confirming the delay on Tuesday afternoon.
That statement cited “the uncertainty and potential health risks surrounding international travel amid the recent spread of the Omicron variant.” It came after AFN National Chief RoseAnne Archibald announced the delay at a virtual gathering of chiefs earlier in the day.
“The decision to postpone was a heartbreaking one, made after careful consultation with delegates, family members, community leaders, public health officials and the leadership of each of the three National Indigenous Organizations,” the groups said in the statement.
“Particularly for many elderly delegates as well as those who live in remote communities, the risk of infection and the fluid nature of the evolving global situation presents too great a threat at this time.”
The groups say they hope to reschedule it for the “earliest opportunity in 2022.”
The meeting was set to take place at the Vatican from Dec. 14 to 21.
The AFN delegation planned on pushing Pope Francis to deliver an apology over the Catholic Church’s role in Canada’s residential school system.
Between 25 to 30 Indigenous people were expected to be part of the delegation scheduled to meet with Pope Francis. The delegation was composed of elders, knowledge keepers and residential school survivors and youth.
A small group of Canadian bishops was also scheduled to attend between Dec. 17 and Dec. 20.
Marc Miller, Minister of Crown–Indigenous Relations, said that the situation was “sad” but that he was glad to see health and safety be the number one priority. Miller added that Pope Francis needs to hear directly from Indigenous people about their struggles stemming from residential schools.
“We are prepared at Indigenous Services Canada….It’s unfortunate because the Holy Father needs to hear from advocates directly,” he said. “We’re here to help and support.”
Miller said that the path to reconciliation is varied, but that it’s important the Pope meet with Indigenous people who will be able to express their concerns. A papal apology was sought
“Reconciliation has many branches to it. This is one of them. Getting a full and complete apology from the Holy Father is very important on the path to healing and closure, but this is only one element to it,” Miller said.
Residential schools were mostly operated by the Catholic Church and funded by the federal government. They became a hot button issue in the summer of 2021 when thousands of unmarked graves were found at the sites of residential school. Survivors and families called for apologies from the Catholic Church and the Pope.
In the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s final report, a papal apology is listed as one of the 94 calls to action.
With files from Global’s Crystal Oag and Amanda Connolly.
With files from The Canadian Press.
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