Warning: The story below contains details of residential schools that may be upsetting. Canada’s Indian Residential School Survivors and Family Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day at 1-866-925-4419.
An Indigenous delegation has announced it is postponing a trip to meet the Pope at the Vatican to discuss the Catholic Church’s role in Canada’s residential schools system, which has drawn increased scrutiny amid recent discoveries of unmarked child graves.
The delegation said on Tuesday that it was postponing the visit, scheduled for later this month, due to fears over the potential spread of the new Omicron coronavirus variant.
“The decision to postpone was a heartbreaking one,” the Assembly of First Nations, Metis National Council, and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami advocacy groups said in a joint statement with the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“Particularly for many elderly delegates as well as those who live in remote communities, the risk of infection and the fluid nature of the evolving global situation presents too great a threat at this time,” the statement continued.
Indigenous leaders across Canada have called on the Pope to apologise for the church’s role in residential schools, a network of forced-assimilation institutions that more than 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Metis children were forced to attend from the late 1800s until the 1990s.
While the system was established by the Canadian government, the Catholic Church ran the day-to-day operations at most of the facilities.
Indigenous children were stripped of their languages and culture, separated from siblings, and subjected to psychological, physical and sexual abuse at the institutions. Thousands are believed to have died while in attendance.
Hundreds of unmarked graves have been discovered in recent months at the sites of several former residential schools, prompting renewed calls to uncover the truth and seek accountability for what happened.
In the statement on Tuesday, the Indigenous groups said they hoped to reschedule the visit to the Vatican “to the earliest opportunity in 2022”.
The announcement comes a day after the Canadian government said it planned to release thousands of previously undisclosed records on residential schools. Withholding the files is a breach of Ottawa’s “moral duty” to survivors, Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller told The Globe and Mail newspaper.
Indigenous leaders and residential school survivors also have called on the Catholic Church to release its own records into the schools, which a federal commission of inquiry concluded in 2015 amounted to “cultural genocide”.
In its 94 Calls to Action (PDF), the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) urged the Pope to issue an apology to residential school “survivors, their families, and communities for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children in Catholic-run residential schools”.
“We call for that apology to be similar to the 2010 apology issued to Irish victims of abuse and to occur within one year of the issuing of this Report and to be delivered by the Pope in Canada,” the commission said.
But while Catholic bishops in Canada apologised “unequivocally” in September to Indigenous people for the abuse that occurred at the residential schools, the Pope has so far failed to meet the TRC’s demand.
In early June, Pope Francis expressed his pain over the discovery of the remains of 215 Indigenous children at a Kamloops Indian Residential School in the western province of British Columbia, but did not offer the apology long sought by survivors.
Raymond Poisson, the president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, last month had welcomed the Vatican summit as “a significant milestone in the Catholic Church’s commitment to renewing, strengthening and reconciling relationships with Indigenous Peoples across the land”.
“With this delegation, we hope to walk together in a new way, to listen with humility, and to discern the next steps that the Church can take to support residential school survivors, their families, and their communities,” he said in a statement on November 10.