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Canada Indigenous press pope for apology on abuses

March 28, 2022

Indigenous leaders have told Pope Francis of the abuses suffered by children at Catholic schools. This week the pontiff will meet with three groups pressing him for an apology.

A traditional Metis scarf made especially for this week's meetings at the Vatican
Metis representatives wore traditional attributes made especially for this week's meetings at the Vatican Image: Gregorio Borgia/AP/picture alliance

Pope Francis held audience with representatives of Canada's Metis National Council at the Vatican on Monday, the first of four meetings with Indigenous Canadian groups scheduled this week.

Later in the day, the pope met with Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami representatives. On Thursday he is scheduled to receive a delegation from the Assembly of First Nations. A final group meeting will be held Friday.

The meetings come in the wake of the discovery last year of hundreds of unmarked graves at Catholic boarding schools across Canada.

According to the Vatican, 10 Metis envoys, eight people from Inuit groups and a number of clergy representing the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops were present at Monday's meetings.

Indigenous groups invite pope on 'journey for truth, reconciliation and healing'

The Holy See said Pope Francis wanted to "listen and make space" for survivors' "painful stories."

"The pope listened. ... [He] heard just three of the many stories we have to share," Metis National Council President Cassidy Caron told journalists on St. Peter's Square.

"When we invited Pope Francis to join us in a journey for truth, reconciliation, justice and healing, the only words he spoke back to us in English ... he repeated truth, justice and healing," Caron said. "And I take that as a personal commitment. So he has personally committed to those actions."

As part of her visit, Caron presented the pontiff with a pair of traditional Metis moccasins, symbolizing an invitation to walk together and "the willingness of the Metis people to forgive if there is meaningful action from the church."

Hands holding red and black Metis moccasins symbolizing the invitation to walk together
The Metis gave Francis moccasins symbolizing the invitation to walk together 'for truth, reconciliation, justice and healing'Image: Gregorio Borgia/AP/picture alliance

Discovery of unmarked graves shocked Canada

Historic widespread abuse of Indigenous children at the hands of the Canadian government and the Catholic Church have long been known. Nevertheless, the discovery in May of 200 bodies in an unmarked grave at a Catholic boarding school in western Canada shocked the nation.

Since then, a total of more than 1,300 unmarked graves have been discovered on the grounds of Catholic-run schools for Indigenous children.

The schools were set up as part of Canada's forced-assimilation policy. From the late 1880s until the 1990s some 150,000 Indigenous, Metis and Inuit children were enrolled in 139 residential boarding schools, often spending months or years isolated from their families, language and culture.

Once separated from their communities, children were often physically and sexually abused at the hands of clergy, headmasters and teachers.

Thousands of Indigenous children at the schools are thought to have died as a result of disease, neglect or malnutrition.

Canada's investigation into abuse at schools

Even before the sites were discovered, Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission had concluded in its final report in 2015 that the government's forced assimilation policy amounted to "cultural genocide," calling the abuse of Indigenous children one of the "darkest and most troubling chapters" in Canadian history.

The commission also specifically called for a papal apology to be delivered on Canadian soil for the church's role in the "spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit and Metis children in Catholic-run residential schools."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — who offered an apology to Indigenous peoples on behalf of the government for its role in the horrific system of abuse — demanded the pope come to Canada and apologize, as well, after the discovery of graves was first made.

The Canadian government has thus far paid billions of dollars in reparations to Indigenous communities as part of a lawsuit involving roughly 90,000 abuse survivors.

The Catholic Church has so far paid over $50 million (€45.5 million) and now says it intends to pay another $30 million.Pope Francis has said he will travel to Canada, but has set no date nor promised any apologies.Speaking of the path ahead, First Nations representative Phil Fontaine told reporters at St. Peter's Square that a papal apology "would be a tremendous boost to these efforts by thousands of survivors that are still looking for healing — they're definitely anxious to see true reconciliation come about, but reconciliation will not be achieved without the truth."

Indigenous peoples: Canada "extremely regressive"

js/rt (AFP, AP, dpa)