TORONTO — A meeting at the Vatican between Pope Francis and Canadian Indigenous people who were abused at church-run boarding schools has been postponed because of the new coronavirus variant.
National Chief RoseAnne Archibald of the Assembly of First Nations said Tuesday that the delegation had planned to travel to Rome next week and meet with the pope on Dec. 20, but the trip is being put off because of the omicron variant. Many of the First Nation delegates are elderly.
“Particularly for many elderly delegates as well as those who live in remote communities, the risk of infection and the fluid nature of the evolving global situation presents too great a threat at this time,” the Indigenous groups and Canadian Catholic bishops said in a joint statement.
From the 19th century until the 1970s, more than 150,000 Indigenous children in Canada were forced to attend state-funded Christian schools as an effort to assimilate them into Canadian society.
Canada’s government has admitted that physical and sexual abuse was rampant in the schools, with students beaten for speaking their native languages. That legacy of abuse and isolation has been cited by Indigenous leaders as the root cause of epidemic rates of alcoholism and drug addiction on reservations.
There has been increased pressure on the pope to publicly apologize after the remains of over 200 children were found buried in unmarked graves in Kamloops, British Columbia, last May at what had been Canada’s largest indigenous residential school. There are also unidentified remains in unmarked graves at other residential schools across Canada.
First Nations representatives and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have urged Pope Francis to publicly apologize in Canada. The Vatican recently announced that the pope would visit Canada next year. A date has not been announced.
Nearly three-quarters of the 130 residential schools were run by Catholic missionary congregations.
The aim of the residential school system was to isolate young Indigenous Canadians from the influence of their homes and culture, which the government at the time considered inferior to mainstream Canadian society.