Rome, Italy – Members of an Indigenous delegation from Canada have held their first meeting with Pope Francis in the Italian capital, as historic discussions on the Roman Catholic Church’s role in “residential schools” are under way.
Mitch Case, a member of the provisional council of the Metis Nation of Ontario, presented red elk-hide moccasins featuring colourful Metis-style beading to the pope during their private meeting on Monday. He said the gift is symbolic of the church and the Metis walking together.
“These crimes against humanity were committed against our people. [The moccasins are] sort of our way of reaching back past the pain and before that,” Case said during a news conference.
“The church has a long way to walk before we can possibly forgive them for what they did, but if he [Pope Francis] is willing to walk with us then we will be willing to walk with him.”
Case is among more than 30 First Nation, Inuit and Metis delegates who are in Rome for private meetings with Pope Francis this week. The delegates are made up of survivors of Canada’s residential schools and Indigenous leaders who for decades have advocated for an apology from the head of the Catholic Church for its role in administering the facilities.
The Catholic Church administered more than 60 percent of the state-run residential schools in Canada, which operated from the late 1800s until 1996. The goal of the schools was to forcibly assimilate Indigenous children into European mainstream culture.
Approximately 150,000 Indigenous children were taken from their parents and communities and forced to attend the schools, where abuse – verbal, physical, sexual, spiritual and emotional – was rampant and cultural practices were banned.
Thousands of unmarked graves of children who died at residential schools have been found since mid-2021, and the search for more graves across the country is ongoing.
“What has transpired is wrong. They [the Catholic Church] need to be accountable,” said Dene National Chief Gerald Antoine, a residential school survivor who travelled to Rome from the Northwest Territories in Canada. “The churches in Canada, they’ve apologised; the only church that’s never apologised is the Roman Catholic.”
A federal commission of inquiry, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in its final report (PDF) in 2015 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 Indigenous children who attended Catholic-run institutions. But no such apology has been made yet.
“This is for our families,” Antoine told Al Jazeera about the purpose of the delegation’s visit. “We’ll share this dark side of the story … We’re not here to create fear or a sense of panic – we’re mainly here to tell the truth.”
Series of meetings
The First Nation delegation’s meeting with the pope is planned for Thursday, the same day that the private meetings wrap up. A final public audience will be held with the pope and all the delegates on Friday at the Vatican.
A First Nations spiritual leader travelled with the delegation to help ease the load of the emotionally tasking schedule of events.
Bishop William McGratten of the Canadian Council of Catholic Bishops also is accompanying the delegates to their meetings with the pope. He has been involved in the planning process for several months, but said the discoveries of graves played a role in hastening the trip.
“l think that [the unmarked graves] brought to light the suffering that was there in the past,” McGratten told Al Jazeera.
“And we know that Pope Francis was moved by that. It’s very important to realise he’s a man of deep compassion and he wants to be able to reconcile. He’s expressed his desire to come for a pastoral visit so he’s making great efforts to be present to those communities and I know that his heart is truly with them and he wants to express his sorrow, his concern.”
Metis National Council President Cassidy Caron described the Metis delegation’s one-hour meeting with the pope on Monday as “very comfortable” and told reporters that Pope Francis repeated “truth, justice and healing” during the talks.
“I take that as a personal commitment, so he has personally committed to those three actions,” Caron said during the news conference. “I felt some sorrow in his reactions … We shared a lot with him,” she said, adding that the group requested “unfettered” access to Church records on residential schools “and we will be speaking more with the pope on this”.
In a statement on Monday, the Vatican said Pope Francis has a “desire to listen and make space for the painful stories of the survivors”.
‘Give the apology’
Another residential school survivor and First Nations leader, Dr Wilton Littlechild, has been to Rome several times before and has advocated for an apology from the head of the Catholic Church for decades.
This time around, he says he is hopeful it may finally happen. Littlechild will have three minutes to speak to Pope Francis when the First Nation delegation holds its private meeting with him on Thursday.
Asking for an apology is at the top of his list, Littlechild said.
“‘My plea to you is, come to Canada and give the apology. The three words that my people want to hear – I am sorry,’” he told Al Jazeera about what he plans to say to Pope Francis.
“And the trigger [for healing] is going to be the apology. If he says ‘yes’ while we’re here and expects us to bring the apology home, it won’t work … All of this is important for self-identity, self-esteem, because many, many of our children are still lost.”