The dome of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican is seen through a window of Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome. CNS photo/Ahmed Jadallah, Reuters

Canadian delegation cancels Rome papal summit over Omicron concerns

  • December 7, 2021

Postponed, not cancelled, but still heartbreaking. The long planned encounter between Indigenous Canadians and Pope Francis in Rome is being put off while everybody learns more about the Omicron variant of COVID-19, according to a joint release from three Indigenous organizations involved in the trip and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“The risk of infection and the fluid nature of the evolving global situation presents too great a threat at this time,” the parties said in a Dec. 7 news release.

The trip was thrown into doubt early that morning when Assembly of First Nations National Chief RoseAnne Archibald told an online meeting of the AFN her delegation would not attend at this time.

"The health and wellbeing of our delegates, their families and communities is paramount to us, and we will not put anyone in harm's way if we can help it," she said.

The AFN move appeared to catch the other two Indigenous organizations, the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and the Metis National Council, by surprise.

“I think there was just a little bit of miscommunication, you know,” Metis National Council communications officer Janna Van De Sande told The Catholic Register. “And that happens with a lot of different players involved in this trip. We’re trying our best to make sure that everything is being communicated.”

The three Indigenous organizations and the Canadian bishops’ conference were immediately plunged into emergency meetings to decide whether any part of the trip could go ahead. Officials came out of that meeting with a statement that emphasized the safety of elderly residential school survivors and their communities in the face of a more virulent strain of COVID now spreading across the globe.

“We take comfort in the desire, conveyed to us by the Holy See, that the safety of the delegation should inform any decision to move forward. It is also important to note that the delegation is postponed, not cancelled,” said the communique at the end of the meeting.

The postponement comes just one week before the flight to Rome was scheduled to take off.

“The decision to postpone was a heartbreaking one, made after careful consultation with delegates, family members, community leaders, public health officials and the leadership of each of the three National Indigenous Organizations,” said the joint release.

This isn’t the first time the meeting has been put off. Planning for Indigenous delegates to go to Rome was put in cold storage just after COVID prompted global lockdowns early in 2020. When unmarked graves were discovered first in Tk‘emlúpsemc Secwepemc territory next to the old Kamloops Indian Residential school in May, then at several other former residential schools through the summer, planning for the trip was re-ignited.

The Canadian bishops, who were financing the trip, have emphasized that Pope Francis and the Holy See want to see it rescheduled.

“We understand that the Holy See is very much committed to rescheduling this visit in the new year and we look forward to the opportunity for Indigenous elders, knowledge keepers, residential school survivors and youth to participate in private meetings with Pope Francis,” said the joint release.

At a press conference in Edmonton, Archbishop Richard Smith was asked whether he had a heads-up that Archibald would announce a postponement, “I did not know that she would make it (her statement) in advance," he said, declining to say whether or not he would have preferred to have prior notice.

Smith said the Indigenous members of the delegations from Alberta – First Nations and Metis – were disappointed when informed the trip would be delayed. Metis delegate Angie Crerar was particularly disappointed, the archbishop said.

“The passion. She wants to tell her story. She wants to tell it to the Pope,” Smith said. 

The Holy See wants to see the trip rescheduled as soon as possible in the New Year, according to Smith. A virtual meeting is possible but the Pope, the Indigenous delegates and the bishops are doing all they can to ensure a face-to-face meeting takes place, Smith said. 

“Meeting people face-to-face, there’s no substitute for that,” he said.

Smith pointed to Pope Francis’ frequent insistence that the Church embrace a culture of encounter.

“As long as there rests the possibility of meeting the Pope face-to-face,” the bishops are determined that it should happen in Rome, said Smith.

Asked whether the postponement would have any effect on the Pope’s projected visit to Canada, Smith said it was too early to say.

The decision to delay the December trip was made in part because of shifting quarantine rules that are tripping up travellers around the world. Delegates were scheduled to fly home Dec. 21. If they had to quarantine on arrival it would mean missing out on Christmas with family and community.

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