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.
Indigenous leaders will be travelling from Canada to the Vatican at the end of March to meet with the pope to discuss the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the Canadian “residential schools” system following multiple discoveries of unmarked graves at the former sites.
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In a joint statement on Tuesday, the Canadian Catholic Bishops, Assembly of First Nations, Metis National Council, and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami said the delegation’s visit would take place at the end of March and early April.
The trip had been postponed from December due to concerns over the spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant.
“We remain committed to walking toward healing and reconciliation and very much look forward to the opportunity for Indigenous Elders, knowledge keepers, residential school survivors, and youth to meet with Pope Francis,” the groups said.
Hundreds of unmarked graves have been discovered at former residential school sites across Canada since May, when 215 were found at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in the western province of British Columbia (BC).
In the most recent discovery, Williams Lake First Nation in BC announced last week that preliminary results of the first phase of a geophysical search at St Joseph Mission Residential School uncovered 93 “reflections” – believed to be unmarked gravesites.
Canada forced more than 150,000 First Nations, Inuit, and Metis children to attend residential schools between the late 1800s and 1990s. The Indigenous children were stripped of their languages and culture, and subjected to psychological, physical and sexual abuse.
Thousands are believed to have died while attending the institutions, which were run by various churches, most notably the Roman Catholic Church. A federal commission of inquiry into the institutions, known as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC), concluded in 2015 that the system amounted to “cultural genocide”.
In its final report (PDF), the TRC called on 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 Metis 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.
In June, Pope Francis expressed “pain” at the discovery of the unmarked graves at Kamloops Indian Residential School, but stopped short of offering the apology long-sought by residential school survivors.
The Catholic Church and the Canadian government also have faced calls to release all records pertaining to the facilities, as survivors and Indigenous leaders continue to demand justice and accountability for the crimes that were committed there.
On January 20, the Canadian government said it had reached an agreement with the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR), a research centre that operates out of the University of Manitoba in central Canada, “that outlines how and when Canada will share historical documents” related to the institutions.
Stephanie Scott, NCTR’s executive director, said at the time that the deal was “another step along the path set out for us by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission”.