The archbishop of the Regina Archdiocese says a meeting between Indigenous leaders from Canada and the Pope at the Vatican would’ve happened sooner had the world not come to a grinding halt because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Archbishop Donald Bolen told APTN News that work to get a trip in place has been ongoing for years.
“Lots of planning meetings for over two and a half years,” Bolen said. “The delegation probably would have happened last year if it had not been for COVID, but yes it’s going ahead by the end of this year.”
A delegation of First Nations, Inuit and Metis will meet with Pope Francis between Dec. 17 and Dec. 20, according to a press release from the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The meeting is needed more than ever as news over the past month has been about the discovery of unmarked graves at the former Marieval Indian Residential school in Saskatchewan and at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in B.C.
News of the discoveries has shocked the nation and pushed a call to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the need for an apology from the Pope to the top of the political agenda.
When the Cowessess First Nation announced the 751 unmarked graves, Bolen wrote a letter of apology to Cowessess Chief Cadmus Delorme. It doesn’t mention a trip to Rome.
“I wrote the letter because we want to now walk in solidarity with the people of Cowessess and we want to help and we share the emotion of this difficult moment,” he said.
Bolen said he’s been working with Delorme for a few years to help identify the people buried in the Cowessess First Nation cemetery that was once run by the Catholic church.
“We have sacramental records of baptism and sacraments and death records, and we’ve shared that information as we were abled with the people from Cowessess,” said Bolen.
He also said he has been working with a group whose goal is to get the Pope to come to Saskatchewan and apologize to residential school survivors.
“With that delegation First Nations Inuit and Métis survivors, Elders, knowledge keepers, youth accompanied by Indigenous leaders and bishops, we will have a chance to meet with Pope Francis,” he said.
Bolen said that the details of the trip should be finalized and announced soon.
Bolen added that both the government of Canada and the churches need to take responsibility, not just the Catholic Church.
“I think the church needs to be called to task I think it is being called to task,” he said. “I think the government needs to be called to task and it doesn’t really help when the government deflects its responsibility and pushes it back on the church right? We got to take responsibility and so does the government.”
The Catholic Church is the only institution that hasn’t issued an apology for the system that took in 150,000 First Nation, Inuit and Métis children with the goal of assimilating them.
Many experienced horrific abuse at the hands of the clergy.
Bolen said he has hopes that the delegation will be successful.
Manitoba Metis Federation President David Chartrand said he will be leading a delegation of Metis leaders during a private one-hour session with the pope to ask him to come to Canada to express his apologies and his sorrow for what took place in residential schools and to begin the healing process.
“It will have a greater sense of power and truth to his feelings and his pathway to healing if he comes into the soils of Canada, and stands here on our lands,” Chartrand said in an interview with The Canadian Press.
Patricia D’Souza, director of communications for the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, said her organization is involved in arranging a visit to the Vatican and discussions are ongoing.
Chartrand said the Vatican respected the nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous Peoples and that’s why there will be separate one-hour sessions with Pope Francis for each of the First Nations, Metis and Inuit delegations.
He said other delegations will be travelling from Canada to the Vatican to attend a meeting with Pope Francis on Dec. 20.
“He will speak to the public, probably in St. Peter’s where he’ll meet the entire Canadian delegation that will be coming.”
Chartrand said the long-awaited apology is still important despite being too late.
“In our culture, Indigenous culture, it means a lot to us that somebody finally acknowledges that they did wrong and they need to fix that wrong,” he said. “I don’t care how long it takes, the healing will start there.”
The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops said Pope Francis extended the invitation and is deeply committed to hearing directly from Indigenous people.
The bishops said in a statement he wants to express his heartfelt closeness, address the impact of colonization and the role of the church in the residential school system, in the hopes of responding to the suffering of Indigenous Peoples and the ongoing effects of intergenerational trauma.
The bishops did not say whether the Pope will offer an apology.
With files from the Canadian Press