ROME — Leaders of Canada’s main Indigenous organizations welcomed Pope Francis’s apology for the Catholic Church’s role in running residential schools, but, as one said, it was just “a fresh track” on a longer hunt for healing and reconciliation.
Chief Gerald Antoine, leading the delegation of the Assembly of First Nations at the Indigenous communities’ meetings with Pope Francis March 28-April 1, used the analogy of hunting to explain to reporters that much remains to be done.
For Antoine, a key concern is a formal recognition by the Canadian government that the residential schools were part of a systemic attempt at “cultural genocide,” or, as he explained it, an attempt “to kill the Indian in the child” and force them to assimilate.
Natan Obed, president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, told reporters, “Today we have a piece of the puzzle,” which is the papal apology.
“I was touched by the way in which he expressed his sorrow and also the way in which he condemned the actions of the church in particular,” Obed said. The next piece will be Pope Francis’ promised trip to Canada, apparently this summer, to visit Indigenous communities and apologize to them.
But even more, he said, the Indigenous need a commitment to discovering the full truth of what went on at the schools and bringing to justice any priests, religious and lay staff who abused students and are still alive.
Obed said that during their week in Rome, representatives were able to meet with officials of the Vatican Secretariat of State and the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the religious order that ran many of the residential schools, seeking a commitment from them to give the Indigenous full access to records and archives regarding the schools.
The leaders stressed the importance of obtaining the records to help write the history of the schools, but especially to help identify the “missing children” — anywhere from 6,000 to 10,000 children who were taken to the schools and never went home to their families. Elders believe some of them are in the unmarked graves found at the site of the former schools.
Cassidy Caron, president of the Métis National Council, told reporters that Pope Francis’ statement of sorrow for the church’s involvement in the schools, his horror at the abuse some Catholics inflicted on students and his recognition of the “chilling” attempt to rob the Indigenous people of their cultures “showed that we were heard.”
“The apology that we received today is absolutely historic and so meaningful to so many people,” Caron said. “This opens the door for us to continue to move forward on our healing journeys.”
At the Vatican meetings, she said, Pope Francis obviously was moved by the stories of the 30 or so official delegations. “Just imagine what he’s going to feel when he comes to our homelands and meets with our people and sees our communities and perhaps visits some of the residential schools that still stand.”
Bishop William McGrattan of Calgary, Alberta, vice president of the Canadian bishops’ conference, thanked the Indigenous communities for engaging in a process of dialogue with the Catholic Church in the years leading up to the papal meeting.
“As we’ve heard, receiving a pardon, offering an apology needs to be followed up with action,” the bishop said, and the Canadian church is fully committed to helping the Indigenous get the records they seek and to continue walking with them.
As for details of the papal visit, McGrattan said the dates of the trip and the places the pope will visit will be determined through a Vatican discussion with the Indigenous communities, the Canadian government and the bishops’ conference.
Speaking at the end of the leaders’ news conference, Angie Crerar, an 85-year-old Métis, said, “My heart is so full that I can hardly speak.”
She was one of the residential school survivors who shared her story with the pope March 28 and, she said, he remembered her when she saw him again April 1 at the group meeting.
“I told him, ‘Don’t forget our children,’ and he said, ‘I won’t.'”
“When he comes home, to our home,” Crerar said, “I know our family will welcome him like he welcomed us.”