ROME – With the visit of Canadian indigenous delegations to Rome and the Vatican now set in the books for December, some indigenous leaders have said they intend to use the meeting to encourage Pope Francis to come to Canada to make a formal apology for the atrocities committed at residential schools.

Speaking during a June 30 press conference on the visit of indigenous delegations to Rome later this year, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde said, “The whole system of residential schools was a genocide, and we see the intergenerational traumas and feel the effects to this day.”

In terms of a formal apology from the Catholic Church, Bellegarde noted that so far, institutional mea culpas have been made by the Anglican Church, the Presbyterian Church, and the United Church of Canada.

The hope, he said, is not only to elicit an apology from the pope during the visit of the delegations in December, but to invite the pope to come to Canada to apologize on behalf of the Catholic Church at an institutional level.

“This is really part of the truth and healing process for survivors, to hear the apology from the highest position within the Roman Catholic Church, which is the pope. Our hope and prayer,” he said, is “to approach the Vatican and His Holiness and try to bring him to Canada so he can make the apology to Canadian survivors and families here on Canadian soil.”

For over two years the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) has been working with representatives from three different indigenous groups – First Nations, Métis, and Inuit – to take delegations to Rome to meet with the pope.

This visit was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, however, now that travel restrictions have eased and moving across international borders has become easier, the trip has been announced for Dec. 17-20 of this year, in compliance with health and safety guidelines.

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Although the visit of indigenous delegations has been in the works for some time, the urgency of the trip has increased in recent weeks following the discovery of the remains of hundreds of children buried in unmarked graves on the grounds of former residential schools throughout Canada.

The discovery of the remains of 215 children in unmarked graves at a former residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia, a month ago sent shock waves around the nation, prompting similar investigations to be carried out at all former residential school sites.

Last week an estimated 751 unmarked graves were uncovered at the former Marieval residential school in Saskatchewan, and on Wednesday, June 30, an additional 182 remains were detected at the site of the old St. Eugene’s Mission Residential School in Cranbrook, B.C., with the use of a ground-penetrating radar.

At the time when residential schools were still operational in Canada, roughly two thirds of them were run by Catholic missionary orders with the aim of assimilating indigenous children to Canadian culture.

Over the years, these schools gained an infamous reputation as survivors began telling stories of physical and sexual abuse, as well as beatings or other strict corporal punishments when children spoke their native language.

Several Christian churches have been the target of arson attacks in the weeks since news of the discoveries first came out.

Four small Catholic churches located on indigenous lands in southern British Colombia have been destroyed by suspicious fires in recent weeks, and a former Anglican church in northwest B.C. was also damaged in a blaze authorities believe was arson.

Two incidents on the Siksika First Nation territory in Alberta are also under investigation, including one arson attack on a Catholic church and the attempted arson of an Anglican church. The burning of another parish, St. Jean Baptiste, which took place on Wednesday in Alberta, is also being investigated.

In response to the blazes, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau – who has asked Pope Francis to come to Canada to offer a formal apology for the Catholic Church’s role in the residential schools – criticized the arson attacks in a statement Wednesday, saying “this is not the way to go.”

“The destruction of places of worship is unacceptable and it must stop,” he said.

In his remarks to journalists, Bellegarde said he understands the anger felt by indigenous communities in light of recent discoveries but insisted that “burning things down is not the way to proceed.”

“Building things up would be the better way to proceed, to build relationships. I can understand the frustration, the anger, the hurt, and the pain, there’s no question, but to burn things down is not our way. Our way is to build relationships and build people up. And come together,” he said.

He did, however, encourage the Catholic Church to “do as much as they can” to make investigations into the residential schools easier by sharing data, information, or documents on the grave sites to help locate them and identify the remains of those buried on the former school grounds.

Referring to the December visit of the delegations to the Vatican – during which Pope Francis is expected to meet with each of the three groups individually and as a whole – Bellegarde said the priority will be fulfilling the “Call to Action” number 58 of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The commission, which operated from 2008 to 2015 and was organized by the various parties involved in the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, acknowledged that apologies by individual Catholic orders and dioceses had happened over the years, but none were visible enough to make an impact at a national level.

At the close of their work, the commission issued 94 “Calls to Action” going forward, one of which, number 58, was for Pope Francis himself to make an apology on behalf of the Catholic Church at the institutional level, and to do it in Canada, where the atrocities were committed.

Bellegarde said the visit of the delegations to the Vatican in December is about healing, “but it’s really focusing on TRC call to action number 58, the full implementation of that.”

“To invite His Holiness to Canada, on the very land, the very soil, where the residential schools happened, and to have him make a statement and, hopefully, an apology directly to survivors and their families. That’s the expectation, that’s the hope,” he said.

He acknowledged that there are “no assurances” that a papal apology will be given in December, or that the pope will agree to come to Canada, “but we do have the meeting confirmed in the Vatican, so it’s a step at a time.”

“I think the Vatican and the Roman Catholic Church, they made apologies to the Irish people, they made apologies to the indigenous people in Bolivia, so I think the Spirit will move in the appropriate way at the appropriate time when things happen here in Canada,” Bellegarde said.

Asked if he thinks the Canadian bishops themselves should invite the pope to come to Canada for the apology, Bellegarde said the Assembly of First Nations has been working with the bishops for several years, and “we have built a partnership.”

“I know they are a very influential and important group of people to work with,” he said, adding, “Any words and statement they can say to help foster this invitation to come back would be very helpful, and we’re going to always encourage that moving forward.”

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