Hopes high for ‘change of heart’ by Pope Francis after meetings with Indigenous delegates

While excited to land in Rome for a long-anticipated meeting with Pope Francis, Taylor Behn-Tsakoza also knows the responsibility that awaits her.

“It’s hard to capture youth perspective from across the nation, but I’m going to try my best to bring what I know and my experiences to our one-hour meeting on Thursday with the Pope,” she told CTV’s Your Morning on Monday.

A member of Fort Nelson First Nation in British Columbia, Behn-Tsakoza is one of two youth representatives taking part in a series of discussions between Indigenous delegates and the pontiff this week.

After planned meetings in December were postponed due to concerns around the then-emerging Omicron variant of COVID-19, Indigenous delegates on Monday held the first of a series of meetings with the Pope to discuss reconciliation with First Nations, Metis and Inuit communities in Canada.

Thirty-two Indigenous elders, leaders, survivors and youth are taking part in the meetings at the Vatican, organized by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, which also is covering the travel costs. A handful of bishops are also attending.

Many are calling for the Pope to not only travel to Canada, but also apologize for the Catholic Church’s role in the residential school system.

It comes as hundreds of unmarked graves at former residential school sites have been discovered in the past year.

More unmarked graves continue to be found, with Keeseekoose First Nation in Saskatchewan just last month announcing it had discovered more than 50 at two former sites run by the Catholic Church.

An estimated 150,000 Indigenous children attended the residential school system, mostly by force, from the late 1800s to 1996. The Catholic Church ran more than 60 per cent of the schools.

Characterized as a form of “cultural genocide,” the schools were a state-sponsored attempt to assimilate Indigenous people, with many children subjected to physical and sexual abuse.

Behn-Tsakoza says an apology from the Pope would be one of the best outcomes of these meetings.

“But I’m hopeful that Pope Francis will have a change of heart and have a different perspective on Indigenous people in Canada from the discussions that we’re going to be having,” she said.

One of her biggest asks of the Pope also will be for him to pressure the Canadian government to renounce the Doctrine of Discovery, formal statements issued in the 1400s by the then-pope, which stated that any land not inhabited by Christians could be discovered and claimed.

“If we really want to move forward and return sovereignty back to Indigenous people, it starts with that,” Behn-Tsakoza said.

Pope Francis is expected to announce on Friday his commitment to make a trip to Canada, where he will apologize for the church’s role in residential schools.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked the Pope for an apology in 2017. However, the church issued a letter the following year saying the Pope would not deliver one.

METIS, INUIT DELEGATES MEET WITH POPE

Following a meeting with Metis delegates, Metis National Council president Cassidy Caron said Pope Francis repeated “truth, justice and healing,” which she took as a personal commitment from him to find justice.

Angie Crerar, 85, from Grande Prairie, Alta., said it felt truly amazing to speak with the Pope, whom she described as kind and receptive.

“They did not break us,” Crerar said of residential schools. “We are still here and we intend to live here forever.”

Natan Obed, president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, an organization representing 65,000 Inuit in Canada, said there was a true sense of openness and kindness shown to the Inuit delegation.

“We are still in search of the lasting respect and the right to self-determination, and the acknowledgement of that right, by institutions that have harmed us,” he said.

“This is where we are in this moment and we look forward to this new path.”

First Nation delegates are scheduled to meet the Pope on Thursday.

Many have called for residential school records to be released. The records are held in dioceses in Canada and in archives in Rome. The Vatican also is believed to have a collection of Indigenous artifacts.

Although church officials say no records are believed to be in the Vatican itself, Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, told CTV News Channel on Monday she suspects records are in fact there.

Ultimately, she is looking to hear how the church plans to reform itself.

“The best apology is changed behaviour and I’m not sure I’ve seen that from the Catholic Church at this point,” she said.

Niigaan Sinclair, an associate professor in the department of native studies at the University of Manitoba, says those records needed to be made available “yesterday.”

Also speaking to CTV News Channel on Monday, Sinclair praised the bravery of the residential school survivors who are sharing their stories with the Pope, saying this is the first step in a long process.

Referencing a smaller delegation to Rome in 2009, during which Pope Benedict XVI expressed “sorrow” for the abuse residential school survivors faced but didn’t apologize, Sinclair says, “the days for privacy are over.”

“There never is, or never can be, any arguments that the schools meant well when there was unmarked graves and the death of children at those institutions, and so now here we are,” he said.

With files from CTV News, The Canadian Press and Reuters 

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