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Pope Francis could visit Canada within a year, Indigenous delegates in Rome say

Click to play video: 'First Nations leaders feeling optimistic after meeting Pope Francis' First Nations leaders feeling optimistic after meeting Pope Francis
WATCH: After a long-awaited meeting with Pope Francis, First Nations leaders say they're feeling optimistic Pope Francis will apologize for the Catholic Church's role in Canada's abusive residential school system. Crystal Goomansingh reports on what the delegates told the Pontiff, and the gifts they presented to him – Mar 31, 2022

Pope Francis could be visiting Canada within the next year, according to Indigenous delegates who are in Rome this week.

The delegation of 14 Indigenous survivors, elders, leaders, youth and knowledge keepers was at the Vatican for a meeting with the Pontiff on Thursday. They urged him to travel to Canada to apologize for the church’s role in residential schools.

“We heard the Holy Father say to us very clearly, the church is with you. And that’s an incredibly important statement, because the next thing we will hear is ‘I am sorry,'” said Phil Fontaine, former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations and a residential school survivor.

“I’m also convinced that this very important moment in the lives of our people will take place on Canadian soil.”

Click to play video: 'Assembly of First Nations delegates meet with Pope Francis' Assembly of First Nations delegates meet with Pope Francis
Assembly of First Nations delegates meet with Pope Francis – Mar 31, 2022

Read more: From healing to disappointment, here’s what a papal apology could mean for residential school survivors

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This visit is expected to happen “very soon,” possibly even “before winter,” Fontaine added, citing Archbishop Richard Gagnon, former president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB).

“Before winter, of course, comes the fall and the summer. I’m convinced it’ll be the summer, and so that that makes me extremely happy,” Fontaine said.

However, the timeline delegates shared for the potential Papal visit wasn’t firm. While Fontaine said he expected the trip to take place within months, another delegate said she heard it will be in 2023.

“We wish to express our gratitude for His Holiness Pope Francis’ commitment to visiting Canada in the New Year,” said Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty of the of Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee.

Click to play video: 'First Nations delegates task Pope Francis with carrying for cradleboard as symbol of his commitment' First Nations delegates task Pope Francis with carrying for cradleboard as symbol of his commitment
First Nations delegates task Pope Francis with carrying for cradleboard as symbol of his commitment – Mar 31, 2022

Should Pope Francis deliver on this intention to visit, Gull-Masty said she’d like to invite him to visit former residential school sites, and to “meet with First Nations survivors, families, leaders.”

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She also said she’d like to see him provide an apology — “a meaningful apology.”

“(An apology) that will not only include acknowledgment of the harms done by the Catholic Church, but also an admission of responsibility,” Gull-Masty explained.

The Pope has so far refused to take responsibility for the Catholic Church’s role in the residential school system that, until 1997, ripped Indigenous children from their homes and families, only to place them in facilities where they were scolded for speaking their language and, in many cases, abused.

Read more: ‘What drove me is the children’: Longest-serving chief in Canada presses Pope for justice

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.

In the last year, over a thousand unmarked graves have been found at residential school sites across the country.

The delegation’s discussion on Thursday about a potential Papal visit isn’t the first murmur of Pope Francis’ plan to come to Canada. In October of last year, the Vatican said that the Pontiff was willing to visit Canada. However, no date has ever been provided.

The Vatican said in a statement at the time that the CCCB invited the Pope to travel to Canada in the “context of the long-standing pastoral process of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.”

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It did not make any pledge to apologize.

Click to play video: 'Former chief says Pope Francis told First Nations delegates ‘the Church is with you’' Former chief says Pope Francis told First Nations delegates ‘the Church is with you’
Former chief says Pope Francis told First Nations delegates ‘the Church is with you’ – Mar 31, 2022

For Fontaine, “the time is right” for that apology to happen now.

“The world has been watching us for some time now, and the eyes of the world were upon all of us here this past week…in large part because of what transpired in Kamloops, with the discovery of the two hundred and fifteen unmarked graves,” Fontaine said.

“It shocked Canada out of its complacency with respect to the residential school issue. The news of the discovery went worldwide.”

He said he was “convinced,” at that point, that the church had no choice but to apologize — and that the “rallying cry” of the current trip to Rome has been an “apology on Canadian soil.”

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“The signs are all in front of us,” Fontaine said.

“The apology will come.”

— With files from The Canadian Press

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