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‘Hope for change:’ First Nations delegates meet with Pope Francis

Meeting with the head of the Roman Catholic Church lasted two hours rather than scheduled one
Members of the Assembly of First Nations walk in St. Peter’s Square at the end of their meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican, Thursday, March 31, 2022. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

Chief Gerald Antoine says he hopes a meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican can forge the beginning of an important relationship.

“Despite our collective grief and pain, there comes hope for change,” the Assembly of First Nations delegation lead said Thursday following the visit with the pontiff.

“This change will bring dignity, equality, trust and an opportunity for this change to happen.”

The delegates were emotional as they walked out of the meeting surrounded by the drumming of family and community members who waited in St. Peter’s Square.

The meeting with the head of the Roman Catholic Church lasted for two hours, although the encounter had only been scheduled for one.

The delegates said they shared stories of residential schools and requested the doctrine of discovery be rescinded and Indigenous lands be returned.

They also requested Pope Francis travel to Canada to apologize for the church’s role in residential schools.

It marks the second time Phil Fontaine has met a pope and requested an apology. The former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations said circumstances are much different now than when he asked former pope Benedict to apologize in 2009.

Fontaine said he was optimistic about the progress achieved at Thursday’s meeting.

“This was a special moment for us. A profound moment,” he said.

Fontaine put abuses at the schools in the national spotlight in 1990 when he spoke about his own experiences as a child at the Fort Alexander Residential School in Manitoba.

He said the recent discoveries of unmarked graves at the sites of former residential schools has put an incredible pressure on the Catholic Church.

While Pope Francis did not commit to an apology or even a trip to Canada, Fontaine said it has been suggested the Holy Father could travel this summer.

Fontaine said he expects the Pope to make that clear during a meeting Friday with First Nations, Métis and Inuit delegates.

“The whole world is watching,” Fontaine said. “And that’s quite a bit of pressure on the church.”

Métis and Inuit residential school survivors and leaders met with Francis on Monday.

They spoke about wanting him to truly hear their stories and understand how they’ve been shaped by the legacy left by the Catholic Church and colonialism.

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

Kukpi7 Chief Rosanne Casimir of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation in British Columbia thanked her community for supporting her as she brought the truth of their history to the highest level of the Catholic Church.

She said everyone, especially non-Indigenous Canadians, has responsibility to build a better future.

“This is our collective history.”

—Kelly Geraldine Malone, The Canadian Press

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