ROME – Survivors of Canada’s residential schools met with Pope Francis Monday to share their stories and request further action from the Catholic Church in terms of recompense, including “unfettered access” to institutional records.

Inuit Elder Martha Greig, a residential school survivor and a mental health supporter, said she was “humbled and honored” to be part of the delegation as both a survivor and a mental health supporter for others.

Speaking to the press after yesterday morning’s private meeting with Pope Francis, Greig said she told the pope, “There is a need for people to heal and there has to be a point of forgiveness from both parties, because if you don’t forgive it eats at you.”

However, “you don’t forget.”

Yet while the memories and the trauma will remain with survivors for the rest of their lives, “there has to be a clean, healing movement along with the people and the Catholic Church” if survivors and their families are going to move forward, she said.

“That’s something that’s really needed, to work hand in hand so that our people can rise from all the hurts that have been done to them. That’s something where we’re working together, and to have respect for one another in love,” she said.

Greig said she conveyed this message to the pope and invited him to visit Canada, saying if he does come, “it would mean more to former residential school students and their families, because intergenerational ties are affected” by the trauma and abuse these students experienced.

She voiced hope that the pope would come to Canada and would make a formal apology on Canadian soil.

Pope Francis meets with members of the Métis National Council in Rome March 28, 2022. (Credit: Vatican Media.)
Pope Francis meets with members of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami in Rome March 28, 2022. (Credit: Vatican Media.)

Pope Francis Monday met for an hour privately with representatives of the Métis and Inuit nations in Canada, marking the first of four meetings this week with Canada’s native peoples and bishops who traveled to Rome as part of a formal March 28 – April 1 delegation, which both sides have said is aimed at healing and reconciliation.

Each meeting lasted about an hour and was opened by a prayer or ritual in the respective language of the delegates. According to the Vatican, the meetings were “characterized, on the part of the pope, by the desire to listen and make space for the painful stories brought by the survivors.”

Members of each delegation, which included Elders, “knowledge keepers,” residential school survivors, and young people, held press conferences Monday afternoon to recount their experience with the pope.

Cassidy Caron, president of the Métis National Council, told reporters afterward that the pope listened attentively to the stories of the three survivors in their group.

“He repeated ‘truth, justice and healing’ and I take that as a personal commitment, so he has personally committed to those three actions,” she said, saying she “felt some sorrow in his reactions…we shared a lot with him.”

During the time Canada’s residential schools, many of which were run by Catholic missionary orders, were in operation, roughly 150,000 children were forcibly removed from their homes in an attempt to strip them of their native culture. Countless children suffered physical abuse, rape, and malnutrition in what Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015 termed a “cultural genocide.”

Members of both the Métis and the Inuit delegations expressed appreciation for the pope’s willingness to meet with them and voiced their desire to move forward on the path of healing, but to do this, they said, requires action from the church, not just words.

Not only did delegates request an apology from Pope Francis, but they also put forward several requests to the Catholic Church in Canada, including access to residential school records and financial compensation.

“An apology will be different and will mean different things to different people,” Caron said, but what survivors are looking for is “acknowledgement that the Catholic Church played a role in the wrongdoing.”

“Intergenerational trauma is in our DNA. We’re passing this trauma on from generation to generation, and we need to start to heal,” she said.

Caron said when the topic of residential school records came up, she asked for “unfettered access” so communities can find out “where our families went and who didn’t come home.”

Archbishop Donald Bolen of Regina, Saskatchewan, told journalists that no records are believed to be at the Vatican itself, but that most of these records are held in diocesan archives in Canada, as well as the Rome-based headquarters of different religious orders.

Natan Obed, who has been president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami since 2015, said the pope was “welcoming and very thoughtful and very engaged throughout the entire encounter,” and that the group was happy with how the meeting, which Obed described as being “calm,” unfolded.

Obed said he conveyed several concerns and requests to Pope Francis, the first being the request for an apology in compliance with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Action point 58, which asks that the pope issue an apology to survivors, and that he do it from Canada.

“The pope said how much he wished that this would come to pass,” Obed said, but did not say when the papal visit might take place.

Caron said she expected the visit, which is rumored to be on the calendar for the summer, to be “soon.”

Obed said he asked Pope Francis to intervene in helping bring to justice Johannes Rivoire, an Oblate accused of abusing several children, who is currently living in France. Survivors are pushing for his return to Canada.

He also asked that the pope direct the CCCB to fulfill its obligations under the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, which specifically calls for $25 million in financial restitution to survivors, and for immediate access to be granted to residential school records.

While not everyone is in a place where they are ready to begin the healing process with the church, Greig said she was raised with the belief that “it is very important to forgive. Whatever wrong is done to you, it’s important to forgive, but not to forget.”

“Everyone is at different stages, and some are not ready to even want to hear forgiveness,” she said. But, she added, while “a genuine, heartfelt apology” from the pope for the past hurts, whether it comes this week or in Canada, it would be “a step toward healing.”

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