‘Historic visit:’ Indigenous groups welcome Pope Francis’ planned Canadian tour

Indigenous groups are welcoming news that Pope Francis plans to visit Canada this summer following his apology last month for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in residential schools. 

The Vatican said Friday that the pontiff is to stop in Alberta, Quebec and Nunavut, and that the capital cities of Edmonton, Quebec City and Iqaluit are to act as bases for the trip from July 24 to 29.

The Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations is working with the The Holy See to plan the visit to that area, Grand Chief George Arcand said in a statement. 

Edmonton is part of Treaty 6 territory, which spans central Alberta and Saskatchewan. 

“I recognize the impact the Pope’s visit will have in Treaty 6, to the survivors, their families and communities,” Arcand said. “My prayers are with the survivors — it is my hope we are on a path to healing and that survivors’ truths are validated with this historic visit to our territories.”

An estimated 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend residential schools and more than 60 per cent of the schools were run by the Catholic Church.

On April 1, after meetings over several days with First Nations, Inuit and Métis groups at the Vatican, Pope Francis apologized for the deplorable conduct of church members involved in residential schools. He also said he would visit Canada. 

“I want to say to you with all my heart: I am very sorry,” Francis said in Italian before a room of nearly 200 Indigenous delegates. “And I join my brothers, the Canadian bishops, in asking your pardon.”

Indigenous delegates had told the Pope that they expected an apology to be delivered on Canadian soil. They later said that they believe a fuller apology would come during his visit.

The Métis National Council welcomed the announcement and reiterated the need for a papal apology, as well as commitment to action in the areas of truth, reconciliation, justice and healing.

President Cassidy Caron said the council wasn’t consulted on the location choices. 

“We hope that the Vatican will work closely with us in the spirit of reconciliation to ensure that there is adequate resourcing for any and all survivors who wish to attend,” Caron said in a statement. 

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops said the Vatican selected the three cities based on the length of the trip, the vast size of Canada and the health of the 85-year-old pontiff.

Archbishop Richard Smith of Edmonton, general co-ordinator of the trip for the conference, said the Pope is limited in how he can travel. He can no longer ride in helicopters and he can’t be in a vehicle for more than an hour. He must also rest in between events.

Despite his limitations, it is expected Francis will travel to a former residential school site.

The chosen cities are spread out and give Indigenous people across the country more opportunities to see the Pope, Smith said. 

The archbishop added that a formal program is to be developed with Indigenous partners and the trip would be another important step for healing and reconciliation. 

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller said it’s important for Pope Francis to hear directly from survivors. 

“You can’t develop policy — particularly on these very, very painful issues that you are responsible for — in a vacuum, in a cabinet room or in St. Peter’s (Basilica),” he said. “Hearing directly from survivors not only offers an opportunity to apologize and a reckoning, but also to develop better practices as to how you move forward.” 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a statement that the visit would not be possible without the “bravery and determination of the survivors, Indigenous leaders and youth who shared their stories” last month. 

Many Indigenous leaders had called for Francis to visit Kamloops, B.C., where the discovery of unmarked graves at a former residential school spurred calls around the world for justice and transparency.

The Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program has a hotline to help residential school survivors and their relatives suffering trauma invoked by the recall of past abuse. The number is 1-866-925-4419.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 13, 2022. 

Brittany Hobson and Kelly Geraldine Malone, The Canadian Press