AFN announces postponement of Vatican trip at special chiefs assembly

A trip by an Indigenous delegation to meet with Pope Francis in Rome later this month has been postponed due to COVID-19 concerns.

This was confirmed by Assembly of First Nations National Chief RoseAnne Archibald at the Assembly of First Nations special chiefs meeting Tuesday.

She says this does not mean the organization plans to let the Catholic Church off the hook on a number of issues.

“We did call on the church to make a number of reparations while these interactions are occurring,” Archibald says. “These immediate actions include returning diocese lands properties back to First Nations on whose individual lands they are situated. And an investment in long-term healing initiatives beyond their commitment of $30 million which was announced in September.

“To make sure that support programs and services are available for survivors and their dependents.”

The Catholic bishops announced in June that national Indigenous organizations would send a delegation to meet with Pope Francis in hopes of seeing him one day travel to Canada to deliver an apology for the role the Catholic Church played in operating the residential school system.

Survivors and their families have long sought a papal apology for the abuses committed against Indigenous children forced to attend these institutions, which were funded by the federal government but operated by churches, including the Catholic Church.

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At least 150,000 Indigenous children were made to attend residential schools, where thousands testified to experiencing physical and sexual abuse, as well as neglect and malnutrition.

The 2015 final report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, which investigated what happened at these institutions, listed a papal apology as one of its 94 calls to action, but it has sat unfulfilled.

A push for the Pope to apologize has re-emerged this year, given the discovery of what are believed to be hundreds of unmarked graves at the former sites of residential schools in British Columbia and Saskatchewan.

Archibald says she looks forward to hearing from the Pope when he travels to Canada, which the Vatican said in October he was willing to do.

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller called the Vatican trip postponement disappointing, but said the safety of the participants is the “No. 1 priority.”

He says the opportunity to speak with the Pope will still happen.

“Obviously, it’s unfortunate because I think the Holy Father needs to hear from advocates directly and that occasion won’t present itself until later,” he says.

Miller, who also told the assembly Tuesday that tackling land issues is a key pillar of the government’s new mandate.

“Resolving land claims, additions to reserves, and treaty settlement agreements will be instrumental in rebuilding trust as the land is central to Indigenous traditions, identity, and prosperity,” Miller says. “Recognizing rights and self-determination moving forward, as well as settling past harms through specific claims in a timely manner, must be a top priority.”

“Building our future” is the theme of the forum.

Archibald says looking forward is something the organization wants to do, after a difficult 12 months.

“This has been a challenging year for many, navigating a continuous and difficult pandemic. Wildfires, record heatwaves, floods, landslides – all while collectively grieving the little ones who did not return from the institutions of assimilation and genocide. I no longer call them schools. No school that I ever went to had a graveyard with unmarked graves.”

There are a number of resolutions on the agenda Wednesday including creating a clearer separation of the AFN’s political and administrative wings and the creation of a national treaty commissioner’s office.

The assembly wraps up Thursday.

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