OTTAWA — Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde says there are no guarantees an Indigenous delegation travelling to the Vatican will lead to Pope Francis apologizing in Canada for the Catholic Church's role in residential schools — but they must try.
Bellegarde confirmed AFN representatives will join Métis and Inuit leaders making the trip in late December to seek a papal apology.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission's final report into the residential school system released in 2015 called for the pope to come to Canada to apologize to survivors as well as their families and communities for the abuses faced by Indigenous children.
It asked for that to happen within one year of the report's release and to be similar to the papal apology delivered to victims in Ireland that suffered different abuses through the Catholic Church.
Outrage over the lack of an apology has been reaching new heights since First Nations in Saskatchewan and British Columbia reported ground-penetrating radar detected hundreds of unmarked graves at former school sites.
Tiny shoes and teddy bears have been laid out in memorials across the country by people grieving the Indigenous children who died at residential schools and the suffering caused to their families back home who didn't know what happened.
Bellegarde says the federal government and Catholic Church are "complicit" in the operation of these schools, where around 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children were sent.
"The Anglican Church has apologized. The Presbyterian Church has apologized. United Church has apologized," said Bellegarde at a virtual news conference Wednesday.
"This is really part of truth and part of the healing and reconciliation process for survivors to hear the apology from the highest position within the Roman Catholic Church, which is the pope."
He says securing the meeting took a lot of planning and it will be their chance to invite Pope Francis back to Canada with the hope he delivers an apology, but they have no assurances he will accept.
Even if the pope does make the trip from the Vatican nobody knows "what words will come from his mind, heart and spirit," Bellegarde said.
"There are no guarantees of any kind of apology," he said.
"There's no guarantee that he'll even come back to Canada, but we have to make the attempt and we have to seize the opportunity and I believe the spirit will move and I think things will happen in a good way. That's my belief and that's my hope and that's my prayer."
The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops has said Pope Francis will meet with the leaders to "foster meaningful encounters of dialogue and healing."
The bishops said in a statement he wants to express his heartfelt closeness, address 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.
They didn't say whether the pope will offer an apology.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who himself is Catholic, said he believes the church is reflecting on its next steps and how it should respond to both its Indigenous and non-Indigenous followers like him, "who are wondering and hoping that our church is going to step up and recognize its role, its responsibility and its continued need to do more.
"That's what people are expecting."
Bellegarde said another outstanding issue remains $25 million in compensation owed by the Catholic Church to residential school survivors, but says the focus in December will be on the apology.
The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, which represents 74 First Nations in Saskatchewan, said the church agreed to raise the funds as part of the Indian Residential School Survivor Agreement, yet has fallen far short.
"If they can’t raise it in their houses of worship here, it should come from the richest organization in the world, the Vatican," Chief Bobby Cameron said in a statement.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 30, 2021.
Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press