First Nations leaders call on Pope Francis to visit residential schools

The Globe and Mail

The offerings of teddy bears and shoes at the memorial grew daily in June at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School as visitors paid respects. MELISSA TAIT/THE GLOBE AND MAIL
The offerings of teddy bears and shoes at the memorial grew daily in June at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School as visitors paid respects. MELISSA TAIT/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Vatican officials visited three locations in Canada this month as part of planning for Pope Francis’s expected trip this year, with some surprised that the former Kamloops, B.C., residential-school site that sparked a national reckoning last year was not part of the initial scout.

The Pope’s visit may take place in late July and include several stops, with Iqaluit, Quebec City and Edmonton being under top consideration as the three locations that were part of the preliminary scout. Nonetheless, the locations and timing of Francis’s visit have not yet been officially confirmed and are subject to change.

Francis reaffirmed his pledge to visit Canada this year while issuing an apology at the Vatican on April 1 to Indigenous peoples for the “deplorable” conduct of some members of the Catholic Church in the Canadian residential-school system.

The Pope, who is 85 and dealing with health issues including knee pain that left him unable to stand at a general audience this week, will not be able to make a lengthy visit with many stops.

While church officials in Canada say they have not ruled out a stop at a former residential-school site, Kamloops was not part of the initial scout. The discovery last year of unmarked graves at its site was the first of several such announcements, prompting a national conversation about the devastating legacy of residential schools for Indigenous peoples. Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir personally invited the Pope to visit the site when she met him last month at the Vatican.

“It’s disappointing,” said Terry Teegee, regional chief of the British Columbia Assembly of First Nations, who wants to see the Pope visit a former residential-school site. “If there is someplace in Western Canada, I would suggest Kamloops, where all this discussion started with the findings.”

Angela White, executive director of the Indian Residential School Survivors Society in B.C., said Kamloops is a crucial place to visit.

“That’s what began the ball rolling towards this ideology of what reconciliation could mean, and to begin shining a light on this horrific history that people just seemed to overlook,” she said.

Mr. Teegee added that he and other AFN regional chiefs weren’t sufficiently consulted by the church officials on locations of the visit. “It’s quite disappointing that in many respects, I don’t think we’re part of the decision making process.”

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops said it has had conversations with Indigenous peoples about possible sites. The focus and programming of the visit “will also be shaped in close consultation with Indigenous partners,” said CCCB lead of communications Neil MacCarthy in an e-mail statement. (On Thursday, the CCCB added that it has had talks with AFN leadership over the past week).

A brief announcement from the Holy See press office is expected in the coming weeks, with details on the Pope’s itinerary generally released two months before the visit.

The visit will likely be shorter than papal visits of the past. Given Francis’s “advanced age and desire for simple, modest visits, we can expect the Canadian visit to reflect this reality in both the length of the pilgrimage as well as the geography of such a visit, given the size of Canada,” Mr. MacCarthy said.

Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami both confirmed that a Vatican site visit took place in Iqaluit on April 8. While on that visit, the officials were shown several potential locations, including a school and outdoor space where people can gather, said ITK, an organization that represents 65,000 Inuit in Canada.

Its president, Natan Obed, who was part of a recent delegation to the Vatican, personally invited the Pope to come to Iqaluit as one of his stops in Canada.

If Edmonton is selected as one of the Pope’s stops, Métis National Council president Cassidy Caron hopes he will visit the Lac Ste. Anne pilgrimage site, about 79 kilometres west of the city.

“It is a historic space for our communities, for Métis people and First Nations people of those territories as well; it’s a site of spirituality, it’s a site of healing,” she said.

Ms. Caron, who met with Pope Francis in the Vatican, also hopes that he will issue a “stronger apology” than the one issued at the Vatican, that will encompass the Catholic Church as a whole rather than individuals’ roles in the harms done to her people. Success of this trip, she added, would be measured by the number of survivors who receive the apology in person.

In Quebec City, David O’Brien, spokesperson for the city, said it is in talks with the diocese of Quebec about a potential papal visit so it can prepare in case it is selected as a spot.

There are calls for other locations to be added to the Pope’s trip. The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations wants the CCCB to include one of the Saskatchewan residential-school sites on his visit, saying the province had one of the highest numbers of schools in the country. At least half of the 22 schools in the province were run by the Catholic Church, which “sexually, physically and mentally abused abused the victims that were forced to attend,” it said in a statement.

“Our First Nations communities are still suffering greatly from the intergenerational traumas created by the harms committed within the walls of these schools,” said Marie-Anne Day Walker-Pelletier, retired chief of Okanese First Nation. “We welcome Pope Francis to walk within the same walls of the institutions that committed genocide against us through the theft and abuses of our children.”

This story was originally published at theglobeandmail.com. Read it here.

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