By Cindy Wooden
VATICAN CITY (CNS) — In three separate meetings March 28 and March 31, Pope Francis will listen to the experiences of representatives of Canada’s Indigenous communities, experiences that include being sent as children to residential schools operated by Catholic dioceses and religious orders.
National organizations representing Canada’s First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities have chosen some 30 delegates to attend the private meetings with Pope Francis; they will be accompanied by six Canadian bishops.
[Related: Canadian Indigenous Give Pope Francis Moccasins, Ask Him to Walk With Them]
Pope Francis will meet with and address all the groups together April 1, the Vatican press office said March 23. About 100 family members, other Indigenous and supporters will also attend the final meeting.
The visit of the Indigenous representatives, accompanied by some bishops, initially was planned for 2020, but was postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. It became even more urgent after the discovery in May 2021 of the remains of 215 children in unmarked graves at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia.
A new encounter with the pope was scheduled for December, but it was again postponed because of the pandemic.
The meeting is part of a drawn-out process called for by the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Action in 2015.
The commission specifically asked the pope “to issue an apology to survivors, their families and communities for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit and Métis children in Catholic-run residential schools. We call for that apology to be similar to the 2010 apology issued to Irish victims of abuse and to occur within one year of the issuing of this report and to be delivered by the pope in Canada.”
In October, the Vatican press office had said Pope Francis is willing to travel to Canada as part of “the long-standing pastoral process of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.” No indication of the timing of the trip was provided, however.
The Assembly of First Nations said it will be represented at the March meetings by 13 delegates, who “will have the opportunity to speak to the Holy Father before joining with all Indigenous delegates to hear a response.”
The lead delegate, they said, will be Chief Gerald Antoine, a member of the Dene Nation and the association’s regional chief for the Northwest Territories.
The delegation also includes Rosanne Casimir, the Kúkpi7 or chief of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc, the home community of the Kamloops Indian Residential School, which was the largest school in the Indian Affairs residential school system.
The Métis National Council said March 22 that it was sending eight delegates, including council president Cassidy Caron and three survivors of residential schools.
As of March 23, the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the national organization of Inuit people, had not released a list of its delegates, but the organization’s president, Natan Obed, said in February that he and six other Inuit representatives would attend.
“This visit, and a direct personal encounter between Pope Francis and Inuit delegates, is a necessary part of our shared healing,” Obed told Nunatsiaq News.