ROME – With Pope Francis’s visit to Canada just days away, the country’s bishops have announced that a special fund to support healing and reconciliation efforts with Indigenous communities has begun accepting proposals.

The Indigenous Reconciliation Fund was established in 2022 to support and advance healing and reconciliation initiatives with Indigenous communities following a pledge to do so by the Canadian bishops last year.

In September 2021, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) announced a $30 million financial pledge over the next five years to support projects aimed at healing and reconciliation given the Catholic Church’s historic role in the abuse of Indigenous children at residential schools.

A government-launched and funded initiative, the residential school system in Canada for over a century attempted to assimilate Indigenous communities to Canadian society by forcibly removing children from their families and sending them to schools where they were often punished for speaking their native languages, and where countless children underwent physical, psychological, and sexual abuse.

Many of the schools were run by Catholic missionary orders and other Christian churches. In total, roughly 150,000 children from the First Nations, Métis and Inuit Peoples were forced to attend government-funded residential schools that were operated by the Catholic, Anglican, or other churches between the 1870s and 1996, when the last residential school was closed.

Survivors of the residential schools say it was “cultural genocide” which left deep generational scars.

The Indigenous Reconciliation Fund accepts donations from 73 Catholic dioceses throughout Canada with the aim of fulfilling the CCCB’s $30 million goal.

According to a July 18 communique from the CCCB, the fund has so far collected $4.6 million and has begun accepting proposals for healing and reconciliation projects. The first proposal was approved on July 15.

All projects that are pitched, the bishops said, are evaluated locally in consultation with the First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities.

According to the bishops, project proposals from diocesan and regional reconciliation committees are being presented to the fund “as part of an effort to support and encourage local collaboration between Catholic entities and Indigenous partners.”

Each application for funding, they said, must first be submitted to diocesan and regional reconciliation committees, and, once it passes this first stage, it will be evaluated by members of the Board of Directors for the Indigenous Reconciliation Fund.

Chief Wilton Littlechild, chair of the board, said in Monday’s statement that “The Indigenous Reconciliation Fund is a critically important effort in support of the path of healing and reconciliation between the Catholic Church and Indigenous Peoples.”

“We are pleased with the progress made to date and are looking forward to distributing funds as quickly as possible in support of reconciliation projects across the country,” he said.

The issue of financial compensation for past harms has been a major talking point for Indigenous leaders engaged in the pursuit of healing and reconciliation, and it was also a topic of conversation during the visit of several Indigenous delegations to the Vatican in March for private meetings with Pope Francis.

Members of the First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities traveled to Rome from March 28 – April 1 for private and collective meetings with Pope Francis, who issued an initial apology for the church’s role in the residential school system.

It is widely expected that the pope will apologize again during his July 24-30 visit to Canada, which will fulfill Action Point number 58 of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which called for the pope to apologize to survivors and their families and communities on Canadian soil.

Beyond the apology, financial compensation and “unfettered access” to church archives to allow relatives to possibly learn the fate of missing children who attended residential schools were two of the primary demands that the Indigenous delegations made while in Rome, and it is expected that these issues will also be raised during Pope Francis’s upcoming trip.

The announcement of the Indigenous Reconciliation Fund’s support to its first project, then, is of keen interest to those eager to hold the church to its financial pledge.

In Monday’s statement, Bishop William McGrattan, vice-president of the CCCB, said “It is our sincere hope that that the governance and oversight offered by all the accomplished and highly respected Indigenous directors” who have agreed to serve on the board of the fund will help it “to meaningfully advance healing between the Catholic Church and Indigenous peoples.”

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