A teepee stands in the graveyard in the Cowessess First Nation near Grayson, Sask., where 751 unmarked graves were found. CNS photo/Shannon VanRaes, Reuters

Indigenous lobbying for Pope Francis to visit grave sites

  • May 4, 2022

Whether or not Pope Francis will visit one of the sites where ground-penetrating radar has revealed possible graves of former residential school students is still not known, as some Indigenous leaders continue to lobby for the Pope to visit these forgotten cemeteries that touched off a national conversation about residential schools last year.

In Rome last month, Kupi7 Roseanne Casimir personally invited Pope Francis to visit the Kamloops Indian Residential School. Casimir has said she hasn’t heard back from Vatican officials.

In May last year the discovery of more than 200 possible graves brought Canada’s residential schools to global attention.

Though Vatican scouting parties have been reported in Quebec City, Iqaluit and Edmonton, nobody yet knows the extent of Pope Francis’ itinerary for an expected tour of Canada in July. The itinerary could be released soon, said Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops spokesperson Neil MacCarthy.

“The Canadian bishops are committed to continue working closely with Indigenous leaders and communities across the country to ensure that Pope Francis’ upcoming visit is a significant milestone in the healing and reconciliation journey,” MacCarthy told The Catholic Register in an email.

Pope Francis has received invitations to visit the grave of Louis Riel in Winnipeg, residential schools and First Nations in Saskatchewan, Lac Ste. Anne in northern Alberta and other sites.

In Thunder Bay, Ont., traditional pow wow dancer, pipe carrier, eagle staff carrier and Catholic Deacon Michael Robinson would like Pope Francis to make two or three trips to Canada, but concedes that such extensive travel for the 85-year-old pontiff is unlikely.

“The impact and the trauma caused by the Catholic Church warrants more than one visit to three communities,” Robinson told The Catholic Register via Facebook Messenger. “I understand the planning needed for such a thing makes it unlikely that it would happen in that manner. What I pray for is the simple matter of genuine steps in healing together.”

Robinson hopes the Pope’s visit doesn’t play into the politics of reconciliation. He warns that for some Indigenous leaders the Pope’s visit is “a chance to be in the limelight and project their frustrations and anger to the media.”

“There is so much going on and so many people are taking advantage of the upcoming papal visit. As a simple deacon, I can only hope that things will remain true to the intent of the visit,” he said.

“We are committed to ensuring that Indigenous representatives and survivors from across the country have the opportunity to participate (in the papal visit),” MacCarthy said. “Programming will be directly responsive to the recommendations and advice we receive from Indigenous partners.”

The CCCB has been working directly with the Assembly of First Nations, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and Metis National Council, first in arranging for delegations to meet with Pope Francis in Rome last month and then in planning the Pope’s return visit to Canada.

“At the age of 85 and with some significant health challenges, his itinerary needs to be manageable and reasonable,” MacCarthy said.

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