Pope should give formal residential school apology in Canada: Manitoba AFN regional chief

A  formal apology from Pope Francis for the role the Roman Catholic Church played in the residential school system needs to be delivered in Canada, says Manitoba’s Assembly of First Nations regional chief.

Chief Cindy Woodhouse, who is in Rome, told CBC News people deserve to hear an apology in their own territories and says the Pope will be given a letter inviting him to Treaty 1 territory in Manitoba when AFN delegates have an audience with him on Thursday 

Métis, Inuit and AFN delegates have been in Rome this week sharing their stories and speaking with the Pope in private audiences about the lasting impacts of the residential school system.  

“We couldn’t bring everybody here,” Woodhouse said. “If he comes to Canada to do it, it will be a lot easier to bring more of our knowledge keepers and our elders and the people that deserve to hear … the families that have hurt so much.” 

Pope Francis is meeting with Mêtis, Inuit and First Nations delegates at the Vatican this week. (Yara Nardi/Reuters)

CBC News reported that Pope Francis told delegates during a private audience with Métis survivors on Monday that he will travel to Canada, though a date has not been set for a visit.

The Catholic Church operated approximately 70 per cent of Canada’s government-funded residential schools between the 1870s and 1997. It’s estimated more than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were forced to attend the schools. 

Woodhouse says all First Nations families have been affected by residential schools in one way or another. 

She travelled to Rome with members of her family, including her husband, eight-year-old son and her father-in-law, who is a residential school survivor. 

“He’s brought up some stories that I never heard before, and I’m glad that I heard them,” she said. 

Phil Fontaine was one of the first Indigenous leaders to speak publicly about the physical and psychological abuse at Canada’s residential schools. (Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press)

According to Woodhouse, 13 AFN delegates will be part of the audience with the Pope on Thursday, and it will be former national chief Phil Fontaine who will share a Manitoba perspective. 

Fontaine was one of the first Indigenous leaders to speak publicly about the physical and psychological abuse at Canada’s residential schools during a 1990 interview with CBC’s Barbara Frum. 

Fontaine previously met with Pope Benedict XVI as part of a delegation from the Assembly of First Nations in 2009. Benedict expressed “sorrow” over the “deplorable” treatment suffered by Indigenous students, but did not apologize.  

Woodhouse says she believes the recent discovery of unmarked graves on residential school grounds will make this meeting with Pope Francis different. 

“The world’s watching,” Woodhouse said. “People were horrified when they found unmarked graves and, you know, the pressure is on the Catholic Church to right this wrong.”

In an interview with CBC’s Piya Chattopadhyay of The Sunday Magazine, Fontaine said an apology is important in terms of being able to move forward. 

“There are so many people in our community that believe an apology from the Pope is absolutely necessary and we’ve all witnessed the resistance from the Vatican to an apology,” Fontaine said.  “The time has come.”  

Apology is about recognition: Fontaine

In the interview Fontaine said an apology is also about recognition “that what we had to say way back when, that our words were true, our stories were true and that an apology will make it possible for many, many people to begin the process of healing, true healing.” 

Hank Siegel, a member of Sagkeeng First Nation who now lives in British Columbia, is also in Rome this week. 

Siegel, a residential school survivor, said one of the reasons it’s important to be there is to support Fontaine.  

“He never stopped fighting for what he believed in and that was to get the truth out there,” Siegel said. 

Nevertheless, Siegel says he’s not convinced there will be a full apology from the Pope.  

“We can hope,” he said.  “But I don’t think he’ll give a full apology myself …  It would be admitting the guilt right that they knew.”

Two fiddlers lead the Métis delegation out of a private meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican on Monday. (Gregorio Borgia/AP)

While an apology is important, Woodhouse says, so is access to all church records involving residential school students. As well, she added, all artifacts must be returned.

“Things that were taken from us from before, they need to be returned back to the people to which they belong,” she said. 

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