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Indigenous delegates delay residential school meeting with the Pope over omicron concerns

BY Patrick Quinn Jan 15, 2022

The Indigenous delegation that had planned to meet with Pope Francis December 17-20 has postponed their trip to the Vatican due to escalating concerns about the omicron variant.

A joint statement from the Canadian Conference of Canadian Bishops, Assembly of First Nations, Métis National Council, and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami called the decision “heartbreaking.” After consulting delegates and public health officials, it was determined that the Covid-19 risk was too high, particularly for the elderly delegates and those in remote communities. 

“Our shared commitment to walking together towards healing and reconciliation remains strong,” read the statement. “We understand that the Holy See is very much committed to rescheduling this visit in the new year.”

First Nations, Inuit and Métis delegates planned to tell personal stories about the legacy of residential schools during private meetings with the Pope, with travel costs and mental-health workers provided by the Canadian Bishops. Approximately 30 residential school survivors, Elders, knowledge keepers and youth were to be part of the delegation, with Cree Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty invited by the AFN to represent Quebec.

“Visiting the Pope isn’t going to give us the answers, but it will give us that high level direction from the head of the church that helps people work with those calls to action and heal from residential school history,” Gull-Masty told the Nation. “The group of Catholic bishops wanted to understand how they can deliver on the calls to action for reconciliation.”

As Quebec’s first residential school operated on Fort George Island, the former site of Chisasibi, the Grand Chief prepared for her trip by consulting with the community. While a local meeting revealed diverse interpretations about the importance of meeting with the Pope, Gull-Masty appreciated their commitment to be part of this process. 

“Elders represent the memory of how this impacted individuals and families, and youth are inheriting the trauma of this history,” asserted Gull-Masty. “They will set the next steps for unlocking how this will not be carried forward onto another generation.”

Gull-Masty hoped to communicate the impact of residential schools to the Pope, which has taken on new urgency since the numerous discoveries of unmarked graves at former school sites this year. Pope Francis expressed his willingness to come to Canada a few months ago, giving new impetus to the effort to obtain a formal apology from the Catholic Church on Canadian soil.

“You cannot reconcile or expect people to heal from a very unfortunate history without trying to understand how they were impacted,” Gull-Masty explained. “When I see people making that effort to try to work with Indigenous peoples, it’s a good step in the right direction. You cannot decide how someone will heal but you need to understand what is it that they need to heal from.”

The Grand Chief had hoped to address the release of residential school records so that families could find closure about their loved ones. But the Church has for many years stalled efforts to release student files. The day before the postponement announcement, the Canadian government said it would release thousands of previously undisclosed records – after decades of refusals – as a “moral duty” to survivors. 

Despite running more than 60% of Canada’s residential schools, the Catholic Church has yet to formally apologize for the suffering of survivors – nor acknowledge the thousands of Indigenous children who did not survive. This is a matter of urgency for Elders like former AFN National Chief Phil Fontaine, the first high-profile person to speak publicly about abuse in the system during a1990 television interview.

“We have to unburden ourselves from those feelings,” Fontaine told the CBC. “I carried the hatred part in me for a long, long time. It has to be the end – I can’t carry this with me forever.”

Métis National Council President Cassidy Caron hopes it will be possible to reschedule soon so that survivors won’t continue reliving traumatic memories in preparation for these meetings. 

“There is definitely urgency in the conversation but ensuring their health and safety is our number one priority,” Caron told the Nation. “We owe it to survivors to see initiatives directed by our communities to heal, rebuild, and restore that balance to our communities and it all begins with an apology. Without that admission, how can we move forward in a positive way?”

Elected to lead the MNC in September, Caron was contacted by the Canadian Bishops to discuss the Vatican trip during her first week on the job. Now she is working to maintain a positive relationship with the bishops, since they will be responsible for ongoing reconciliation efforts after returning from Rome.

“I will say it’s all successful when we see the follow-up from this step,” said Caron. “Going over to share our stories with Pope Francis is one stepping stone. Having him make that apology in Canada is another step. Then what are the actions we see to help our communities make these changes? It’s all in the follow-up.”

During a virtual gathering of Indigenous leaders to announce the visit would be postponed, AFN National Chief RoseAnne Archibald demanded the return of diocese property to Indigenous communities. Archibald also demanded the Church increase the $30 million it announced in September for long-term healing, and that it encourage the Pope to meet with Indigenous leaders on traditional lands if he eventually visits Canada. 

Finally, Archibald said she intends to file a human-rights complaint against Canada at the United Nations.

“Canada must be held responsible for their genocidal laws and policies,” she said. “We need to know the truth before we can walk the road to reconciliation.”

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.