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Indigenous papal visit postponed to 2022 amid concerns around Omicron COVID-19 variant

Group postponed because of ‘uncertainty and potential health risks surrounding international travel’
Assembly of First Nations National Chief RoseAnne Archibald speaks during a news conference in Kamloops, BC., on Thursday, September 30, 2021. Archibald says an upcoming delegation to the Vatican has been postponed. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

An upcoming trip by Indigenous leaders to meet with Pope Francis at the Vatican has officially been postponed.

Leaders from the three national Indigenous organizations who were set to send delegates as well as the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops announced the decision this afternoon.

News that the upcoming travel may have been off was made earlier in the day by Assembly of First Nations National Chief RoseAnne Archibald, who cited concerns about the new Omicron variant of COVID-19.

The groups met today to discuss the matter, and issued a joint statement saying they decided to postpone because of the “uncertainty and potential health risks surrounding international travel.”

They say their trip to meet with the Pope will be rescheduled “to the earliest opportunity in 2022.”

The statement says deciding to postpone was a “heartbreaking” one, but among their concerns were the risks posed to elders who would be travelling and those who live in remote communities.

The Catholic bishops announced in June that national Indigenous organizations, including the Assembly of First Nations, would send a delegation to meet with Pope Francis.

The trip was planned in hopes of seeing the Pope travel to Canada in return and deliver an apology for the role the Catholic Church played in operating the residential school system.

“The health and well-being of our delegates, their families and communities is paramount to us and we will not put anyone in harm’s way if we can help it,” Archibaldsaid earlier Tuesday.

She said she looks forward to hearing from the Pope when he travels to Canada, which the Vatican said in October he was willing to do.

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller called the postponement disappointing, but said the safety of the participants is the “No. 1 priority.”

He said the opportunity to speak with the Pope will still happen.

“Obviously, it’s unfortunate because I think the Holy Father needs to hear from advocates directly and that occasion won’t present itself until later,” he said.

Miller said the trip was not being organized or led by the federal government but Ottawa is providing some supports to the delegation, and that will continue.

Residential school survivors and their families have sought a papal apology for the abuses committed against Indigenous children forced to attend residential schools, which were funded by the federal government, but operated by churches, including the Catholic Church.

The final report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada delivered in 2015 listed a papal apology as one of its 94 calls to action, but it has sat unfulfilled.

A push for the Pope to apologize has re-emerged this year, given the discovery of what are believed to be hundreds of unmarked graves at the former sites of residential schools in British Columbia and Saskatchewan.

In her address to AFN chiefs Tuesday, Archibald said they have called on the Catholic Church to make different reparations, including returning diocese lands and properties back to First Nations on which they are situated.

She also believes the church needs to provide more money for long-term healing initiatives that exceed the $30 million the bishops’ conference promised it would fundraise earlier in the fall.

Archibald says she has also asked that the Pope revoke a 1493 doctrine of discovery, which aimed to justify European explorers’ claims on land, and replace it with a decree that “Indigenous Peoples and cultures are valuable, worthy and must be treated with dignity and respect.”

—Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press

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