Pope heads to Canada as Indigenous groups seek full apology

by | Jul 24, 2022 | Top Stories

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Elmer Waniandy raises the crucifix as he leads his fellow parishioner into the rededicated and newly renovated Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples sanctuary, July 17, 2022, in Edmonton, Alberta.

Jessie Wardarski/AP

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Jessie Wardarski/AP

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis began a fraught visit to Canada on Sunday to apologize to Indigenous peoples for abuses by missionaries at residential schools, a key step in the Catholic Church’s efforts to reconcile with Native communities and help them heal from generations of trauma. Francis was flying to Edmonton, Alberta, where he was to be greeted on the tarmac by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mary May Simon, an Inuk who is Canada’s first Indigenous governor general. Francis had no official events scheduled Sunday, giving him time to rest before his meeting Monday with survivors near the site of a former residential school in Maskwacis, where he is expected to deliver an apology. Indigenous groups are seeking more than just words, though, as they press for access to church archives to learn the fate of children who never returned home from the residential schools. They also want justice for the abusers, financial reparations and the return of Indigenous artifacts held by the Vatican Museums.

“This apology validates our experiences and creates an opportunity for the church to repair relationships with Indigenous peoples across the world,” said Grand Chief George Arcand Jr., of the Confederacy of Treaty Six. But he stressed: “It doesn’t end here – there is a lot to be done. It is a beginning.” Francis’ weeklong trip — which will take him to Edmonton; Quebec City and finally Iqaluit, Nunavut, in the far north — follows meetings he held in the spring at the Vatican with delegations from the First Nations, Metis and Inuit. Those meetings culminated with a historic April 1 apology for the “deplorable” abuses committed by some Catholic missionaries in residential schools. The Canadian government has admitted that physical and sexual abuse were rampant in the state-funded Christian schools that operated from the 19th century to the 1970s. Some 150,000 Indigenous children were taken from their families and forced to attend in an effort to isolate them from the influence of their homes, Native languages and cultures and assimilate them into Canada’s Christian society. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015 had called for a papal apology to be delivered on Canadian soil, but it was only after the 2021 discovery of the remains of around 200 children at the former Kamloops residential school in British Columbia that the Vatican mobilized to comply with the request.
“I honestly believe that if it wasn’t for the discovery … and all the spotlight that was placed on the Oblates or the Catholic Church as well, I don’t think any of this would have happened,” said Raymond Frogner, head archivist at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, which serves as an online resource for research into the residential schools. Frogner just returned from Rome where he spent five days at the headquarters of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, which operated 48 of the 139 Christian-run residential schools, the most of any Catholic order. After the graves were discovered, the Oblates finally offered “complete transparency and accountability” and allowed him into its headquarters to research the names of alleged sex abusers from a single school in the western Canadian province of Saskatchewan, he said. While there, he found 1,000 original black-and-white photos of schools and their students, with inscriptions on the back, that he said would be of immense value to survivors and their families hoping to find traces of their loved ones. He said the Oblates agreed on a joint project to digitize the photographs and make them available online. The Inuit community, for its part, is seeking Vatican assistance to extradite a single Oblate priest, the Rev. Joannes Rivoire, who ministered …

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