“He repeated ‘truth, justice and healing’ and I take that as a personal commitment,” said Cassidy Caron outside St. Peter’s Square Monday morning.
Caron said the Pope did not provide an apology for the church’s role in residential schools. But, she added, they have always requested it take place on Canadian soil.
Following the meeting with the Pope, Caron was joined by delegates at a news conference. She said that the meeting was just the beginning of a long journey ahead to reconciliation.
“It’s going to take commitment and action from so many people. It’s going to take action from Canadians. It’s going to take action from the government. It’s going to take action from churches, parishioners, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Catholic Church as a whole and the Pope,” Caron said.
She added that reconciliation began before today, but it doesn’t end with a meeting with Pope Francis or an apology from him. She said that the meeting and ability for survivors to speak directly with the Roman Catholic leader was a significant “stepping stone.”
“Each of those words are so meaningful and each of those have so many actions that we need to follow in order to move towards building a brighter, better, healthier, sustainable, prosperous, multination for our future,” Caron said.
In speaking about the apology, which is expected to be delivered later in the week, Caron said she thinks it will mean something different to every First Nations person, but they’re all looking forward to it.
“A lot of our survivors have told me that they’re looking for that acknowledgment of the role the Catholic Church residential schools played a role in the wrongdoing that was done to these children and to our communities,” Caron said.
She added that artifacts need to be returned to First Nations communities and that there needs to be “unfettered access” to records on residential schools. It was unclear where the records were.
One of the Canadian delegates from the Catholic Church joining Caron was Archbishop Donald Bolen of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Regina who said that seeing the two sides have an honest and frank discussion was important.
“It was a very beautiful experience, very much a privilege to be there. Years of work have led up to this delegation, these meetings, and today we took a very big step, a significant moment,” he said.
Bolen said that listening to the stories of the survivors was challenging, but necessary.
“A lot of hard truths were spoken, but they were spoken in a very gracious and in a very poignant and in a very powerful way,” he said.
When asked about the money owed by the Catholic church to residential school survivors, Bolen said that they will make intentions to make the $30 million whole. But, Caron said there shouldn’t be small efforts made, and that the Vatican could in one fell swoop ensure that survivors are compensated.
“There’s a much larger role for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops to play in helping us advocate to the Pope and to the Vatican, one of the wealthiest states in this world,” Caron said. “There should be no question why these funds have not been paid to our people yet.”
The eight Métis delegates spent an hour with the pontiff where three survivors shared their stories of residential schools.
Angie Crerar, 85, has said that when she was in a residential school, she knew what was happening wasn’t right. She wanted to tell the person in charge — the one at the top. Now, almost 80 years later, she finally did.
“They did not break us. We are still here and we intend to live here forever,” said Crerar, who is from Grande Prairie, Alta.
She said it felt truly amazing to speak with the Pope about her experiences. She said he seemed kind and receptive.
The group also presented him with a pair of red, beaded moccasins as a sign of the Métis people’s willingness to forgive if there is meaningful action. The red represents the traditional red papal shoes, the group explained, and that Francis walks with the legacy of those who came before him — including the terrible parts.
Pixie Wells, from Fraser Valley, B.C., said she was proud to be a two spirit person in the room with the Pope. She said that homophobia is directly connected to colonization and residential schools.
“We are bringing back that cultural component of being a two spirit individual,” Wells said. “We were leaders, healers in our communities… that was my power in that room for every other two spirit person.”
The Inuit group met with Francis after.
Natan Obed, the president of the national organization representing Inuit people, has said he hopes it’s an opportunity to get justice and hold accountable members of the church who harmed Indigenous children.
First Nations delegates will meet with the pontiff on Thursday.
All three groups of delegates will then gather with the Pope on Friday. All have expressed an expectation that he will commit to apologizing for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in residential schools during a trip to Canada.
An estimated 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend residential schools, more than 60 per cent of which were run by the Catholic Church.
A total of 32 Indigenous elders, leaders, survivors and youth are taking part in the Vatican meetings. The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, which organized and is paying for the delegation, is also sending a handful of members.
Rev. Raymond Poisson, the group’s president, has said he expects the meetings to allow Pope Francis to address the ongoing trauma and legacy of suffering faced by Indigenous people to this day.
“As well as the role of the Catholic Church in the residential school system, which contributed to the suppression of Indigenous languages, culture and spirituality,” he said.
with files from Kelly Geraldine-Malone