The dome of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican is framed by trees. CNS photo/Paul Haring

Bellegarde hopes papal meeting will lead to residential school apology

  • July 1, 2021

OTTAWA -- There is no guarantee that a delegation to the Vatican will lead to a papal apology for the Catholic Church’s role in Canada’s residential school system but the Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations is praying it will.

AFN Grand Chief Perry Bellegarde said a visit to the Vatican to meet with Pope Francis Dec. 17-20 will be an opportunity for Canada’s First Nations to convince the Pope that reconciliation between the Church and Indigenous Canadians can only move forward if he visits Canada and apologizes to survivors and families on the “soil and the land” where the abuses of the residential school system occurred.

“The meeting has been confirmed at the Vatican so we are going to take that meeting and then at that time take the opportunity to invite His Holiness back to Canada at some point in the future,” Bellegarde said during a June 30 press conference.

“There are no guarantees of any apology or that he will even come back to Canada but we have to make the attempt and we have to seize the opportunity. I believe the spirit will move and things will happen in a good way. That is my hope and that is my prayer.”

The press conference came a day after the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) confirmed a meeting will take place at the Vatican. The bishops had previously announced a delegation of Indigenous people would meet with the Pope this year to foster meaningful encounters of dialogue and healing. The bishops said the pastoral visit will include “the participation of a diverse group of elders/knowledge keepers, residential school survivors and youth from across the country.”

Bellegarde is hopeful that Canada’s bishops will formally ask Pope Francis to come to Canada for an apology because the CCCB is an important organization that the AFN has established a relationship of mutual respect with.

One of the key recommendations of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a demand for a formal apology to be made by the Pope in Canada on behalf of the Catholic Church for its role in the residential school system. Calls for the Pope to make such an apology have been made before, including by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as recently as June.

“Pope Francis is deeply committed to hearing directly from Indigenous peoples, expressing his heartfelt closeness, addressing the impact of colonization and the role of the Church in the residential school system, in the hopes of responding to the suffering of Indigenous peoples and the ongoing effects of intergenerational trauma,” said the bishops’ June 29 statement.

The bishops said they “are deeply appreciative of the Holy Father’s spirit of openness in generously extending an invitation for personal encounters with each of the three distinct groups of delegates – First Nations, Métis and Inuit – as well as a final audience with all delegates together on 20 December 2021.”

A small group of bishops and Indigenous leaders will accompany the delegation, said the bishops.

“The bishops of Canada reaffirm their sincere hope that these forthcoming encounters will lead to a shared future of peace and harmony between Indigenous peoples and the Catholic Church in Canada,” said the bishops, adding that planning for the visit is ongoing and further details will be announced when they are available.

In their June 10 announcement the bishops said they had been working for more than two years on a pastoral visit with residential school survivors. The visit was stalled by the COVID-19 pandemic, but the bishops pledged to “moving forward with the delegation prior to the end of 2021, in compliance with international travel guidelines.”

That announcement came two weeks after the discovery of remains at a burial site at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, which the statement said serves as a reminder “of a tragic legacy still felt today.”

The bishops said they had “genuinely heard the sincere invitation to engage wholeheartedly with the past and are deeply committed to take truly meaningful active steps together with Indigenous peoples in view of a future filled with greater respect and cooperation.”

The delegation to the Holy See “represents an important step on the journey of reconciliation and shared healing for Indigenous Peoples and the Church in Canada,” said the bishops.
Preparations for the pastoral visit have included talks with Indigenous people and communities at local and national levels, and bilaterally with the First Nations, Métis and Inuit national organizations, said the bishops.

“It is our hope that these forthcoming encounters – and the important collaboration and partnership that has supported the planning – will lead to a shared future of peace and harmony between Indigenous peoples and the Catholic Church in Canada.”

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