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Miles Morrisseau
Special to Indian Country Today

A planned meeting at the Vatican between survivors of Canada’s Indian residential schools and Pope Francis has been postponed indefinitely because of a worldwide rise in the Omicron variant of the COVID virus.

A joint statement announcing the delay was issued Tuesday by the Assembly of First Nations, Inuit Tapirat Kanitami, the Métis National Council and the Canadian Council of Catholic Bishops.

“After careful assessment of the uncertainty and potential health risks surrounding international travel amid the recent spread of the Omicron variant, the Canadian Bishops, Assembly of First Nations, Métis National Council, and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami have jointly decided to reschedule a delegation to the Vatican in December 2021 to the earliest opportunity in 2022,” according to the statement.

The meeting had been set for Dec. 17-20 at Vatican City amid calls for a papal apology for the Catholic Church’s role in the abuse and death of thousands of Indigenous children in Canada’s residential schools.

The delegation of 30 Indigenous peoples, including Indian residential school survivors and descendants of survivors, had been set to travel to Vatican City for a personal meeting with Pope Francis, who heads the Catholic Church.

The Catholic Church was part of a cabal that included churches, federal, provincial, and local governments as well as businesses and individuals who perpetuated and profited from the Indian Residential School System.

Although missionary schools run by a variety of churches promoted various visions of Christianity before the founding of Canada in 1867, it wasn’t until 1883 that the government became officially involved.

Indigenous children were forced from their families into often-corrupt and grim conditions in residential schools, where many of them died. It was at a Catholic-run residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia, where the remains of at least 215 children were uncovered in May 2021, leading to the discovery of hundreds more unmarked graves at former school sites across Canada and the United States. 

The government terminated its involvement with the schools in 1996, the same year an extensive, nationwide examination of the relationship between Canada and Indigenous peoples was released.

The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples devoted a chapter on the Indian Residential School System. The report noted that the first school was opened in 1849 in Alderville, Ontario, after government leaders “came to the conclusion that the problem (as they saw it) of Aboriginal independence and 'savagery' could be solved by taking children from their families at an early age and instilling the ways of the dominant society during eight or nine years of residential schooling far from home.

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“Attendance was compulsory,” the report continued. “Aboriginal languages, customs and habits of mind were suppressed. The bonds between many hundreds of Aboriginal children and their families and nations were bent and broken, with disastrous results.”

Class-action lawsuits were launched and thousands of Indigenous peoples began coming forward with stories of abuse and trauma. The federal government negotiated a settlement that included creation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was launched in 2008 and issued its own report and recommendations in 2015.

Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized in the Canadian House of Commons for Canada’s part in the system, which was based largely on Indian boarding schools in the United States that started with the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. The founder of the school built the model on the motto, “Kill the Indian, save the man.”

In a speech broadcast on television and radio on June 11, 2008, Harper said the Canadian schools operated as “joint ventures” with the Anglican, Catholic, Presbyterian or United churches.

“The government of Canada built an educational system in which very young children were often forcibly removed from their homes, often taken far from their communities,” he said. “Many were inadequately fed, clothed and housed. All were deprived of the care and nurturing of their parents, grandparents and communities. First Nations, Inuit and Métis languages and cultural practices were prohibited in these schools. Tragically, some of these children died while attending residential schools and others never returned home.”

In the ensuing years, survivors and advocates have been calling on the churches to take responsibility. The Anglican Church, the United Church and the Presbyterian Church have issued apologies to survivors, to Indigenous people and to God. The only church that hasn’t apologized is the Catholic Church.

Expectations were high that a possible apology from the Pope would happen on the planned meeting.

“The decision to postpone was a heartbreaking one, made after careful consultation with delegates, family members, community leaders, public health officials and the leadership of each of the three National Indigenous Organizations,” according to the statement.

“Particularly for many elderly delegates as well as those who live in remote communities, the risk of infection and the fluid nature of the evolving global situation presents too great a threat at this time," the statement continued. "We take comfort in the desire, conveyed to us by the Holy See, that the safety of the delegation should inform any decision to move forward. It is also important to note that the delegation is postponed not cancelled.”

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