Survivors of Canada’s residential schools on Monday called on Pope Francis to ensure unfettered access to Church records of institutions where Indigenous children were abused and their culture denied. Francis met for about an hour each with representatives of Métis and Inuit nations, the first of four meetings this week with Canada’s Indigenous peoples in what both sides called a process of healing and reconciliation.
“It was a very cozy meeting,” Cassidy Caron, president of the Métis National Council, told reporters afterward, adding that the pope listened intently to the elderly survivors telling their stories. The stated goal of the schools, which operated between 1831 and 1996, was to assimilate Aboriginal children. They were run by several Christian denominations on behalf of the government, most by the Catholic Church.
“He repeated ‘truth, justice and healing’ (in English) and I consider that a personal commitment, so he was personally committed to these three actions,” she said. “I felt a bit of grief in his reactions…we shared a lot with him,” Caron said.
Around 150,000 children have been taken from their homes. Many were victims of abuse, rape and malnutrition in what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015 called “cultural genocide”. Caron said the topic of records came up. The documents are preserved in the dioceses of Canada and in the archives of the Rome headquarters of various religious orders. Archbishop Donald Bolen of Regina, Sask., told reporters that no document was believed to be from the Vatican itself.
“The Métis Nation needs to be sure they understand all of our truth, and it will be unfettered access to Church records and we will talk more with the Pope about it,” she said. The Indigenous peoples of Canada and the Canadian government want the Pope to visit Canada to apologize for the Church’s role in schools.
Caron said she was not disappointed that the pope did not apologize on Monday because the natives want him to do so in Canada. She said she expected the trip to be “soon”. Vatican sources said it would likely be this summer.
“Although the moment of recognition, apology and atonement is long overdue, it’s never too late to do the right thing,” she said. “Now it’s (the pope’s) turn to join us in this work,” she said. Matan Obed, an Inuit leader, said he asked the pope to help bring to justice a priest accused of abusing several children and living in France.
The recurring schools scandal erupted again last year with the discovery of the remains of 215 children from the former Kamloops Indian residential school in the western Canadian province of British Columbia. The discovery of the school, which closed in 1978, reopened old wounds and brought new demands for responsibility. Hundreds of other unmarked burial sites have since been discovered.
Francis was elected pope nearly two decades after the last schools closed. “Part of justice is acknowledging what happened in the past. That acknowledgment, even if it wasn’t him personally, is really meaningful and important,” Caron said.
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