In 2009, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Phil Fontaine met Pope Benedict XVI in an audience at the Vatican. CNS file photo

Apology ‘most pressing issue’: Fontaine

  • October 28, 2021

When Chief Phil Fontaine arrives in Rome to meet with Vatican officials and Pope Francis he will be laser focused on having the Holy Father apologize on Canadian soil, in an Indigenous context, for the damage done to children and communities by Catholic participation in the residential school system.

“It’s been quite evident for some time what is the most pressing issue as far as Indigenous people are concerned — I’m referring to the three national organizations that represent the Metis, Inuit and First Nations — they’re all focused on an apology from the Pope, the Holy Father,” Fontaine told The Catholic Register.

Fontaine has been chosen by the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs to represent Manitoba as part of the First Nations delegation to the Vatican Dec. 17-20. 

The visit to Rome by Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, Assembly of First Nations and Métis National Council representatives has been organized and sponsored by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Once Indigenous representatives have made their case in Rome, Fontaine expects the CCCB will shortly thereafter issue a unanimous invitation to Pope Francis to visit Canada.

“There’s no reason for me to doubt their commitment to extend an invitation to the Pope to come to Canada,” he said. “The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops have been very involved in these discussions. I haven’t heard anything from the conference that they’re opposed to a papal visit to Canada.”

A three-time National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations and former Grand Chief of the Manitoba Assembly of First Nations, Fontaine was part of the first wave of residential school survivors to speak out publicly about systemic abuse he and others endured in residential schools and the damage it did to families and communities. As National Chief, Fontaine led negotiations for the 2006 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, the largest class action lawsuit in Canadian history.

In 2009 Fontaine met with Pope Benedict XVI in Rome. At that private audience, Benedict expressed sorrow for the suffering of Indigenous residential school survivors.

“This (2021 visit) is a continuation of the work that was undertaken then,” he said.

Given 633 First Nations communities across Canada, the vast expanse of Inuit territory and many Métis communities, one of the difficult decisions that must be made about a papal visit will be where exactly the apology should be made, said Fontaine.

“It’s going to be a difficult challenge to determine where the Holy Father will choose, in concert with the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and the organizations who will meet him — the three delegations— as to where this may take place,” he said. “When we say Canadian soil, we’re talking about an Indigenous community as the place where this will take place.”

Such an apology would fulfill the demands of Call to Action #58, one of the 94 Calls to Action contained in the 2015 final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Discussions about a papal apology to fulfil Call to Action #58 began at the CCCB soon after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued its 5,000-page report.

“We have been working at it for many years and more precisely over the past three years with renewed zeal,” then CCCB president and St.-Jean Longueil Bishop Lionel Gendron wrote to retired judge George Valin Sept. 9, 2019.

“Five years and they still don’t have him coming here? They haven’t figured out how?” asked Valin of North Bay, Ont. Valin has dedicated himself to seeing Call to Action #58 fulfilled since shortly after the TRC reported.

“Planning for the trip to Rome was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said CCCB spokesperson Lisa Gall.

Valin said he will be very pleased if Fontaine’s confidence in a CCCB invitation turns out to be warranted.

Only 14 of the 94 Calls to Action have been fulfilled, according to a June 30 inventory by the B.C. Treaty Commission. Twenty-three are in progress with projects underway and 37 are in progress with projects proposed. Twenty have yet to be started.

In 2018 the CCCB released a statement saying Pope Francis “could not personally respond” to Call to Action #58 at that time.

According to the CCCB, the purpose of this year’s trip to Rome is to “provide Pope Francis with a unique opportunity to hear directly from Indigenous peoples, express his heartfelt closeness, address the impact of colonization and learn more about the Church involvement in residential schools.”

Gall did not answer questions about whether the CCCB intended to extend an invitation to Pope Francis to visit Canada.

Even as young Indigenous disengage from the Catholic faith of their elders, a papal apology is still important, said Fontaine.

“We’re in a process of transition,” he said. “There are more and more of our people who have adopted or embraced their traditional values and their traditions and the rituals that go along with those, because those were outlawed until very recently. So they’ve embraced these. On the other hand, there are still many people who remain devout Catholics.”

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