Members of a First Nations delegation that held an audience with Pope Francis on Thursday say they are convinced an apology from the Pope and the Catholic Church is imminent.
First Nations, Inuit, and Métis leaders have all now invited the Pope to deliver an apology, on Canadian soil, for the Church’s role in residential schools and their devastating intergenerational trauma.
While the Pope has yet to formally state he will take up that invite – beyond a commitment to visit Canada at a later date – delegates emerging from Thursday’s two-hour meeting at the Vatican were certain a papal apology is on the way.
“The next thing we will hear is, ‘I am sorry.’ I’m absolutely convinced of that,” said Phil Fontaine, former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, at a news conference held following the meeting.
Fontaine said Thursday’s audience “gave me a real sense of optimism that we’re on the verge of finally turning the corner on this issue.”
He continued: “We heard the Holy Father say to us very clearly: ‘The Church is with you.’ That’s an incredibly important statement.”
Archbishop Richard Smith of Edmonton, who accompanied the delegation, said Pope Francis “wanted this encounter to happen and it’s clear that he himself was profoundly moved by what he heard.”
Thursday’s delegation was led by Dene National Chief Gerald Antoine, who used the famed ceiling of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel to explain how he saw this moment in relations between Indigenous people and the Church.
The Creation of Adam, painted by Michelangelo in the early 16th century, forms a central element of the vast ceiling. The fresco shows God giving life to Adam, the first man, their hands almost touching.
“What I saw there, and how I feel today is that we’re at that particular point,” Chief Antoine said.
“It is the work of divine powers that allow us to be able to come together at this point, to truthfully share a story.”
Antoine said delegates “spoke the truth” to the Pope and felt there was hope for change, though he acknowledged much work lay ahead.
“Certainly, from what I learned in Rome, that will not happen overnight,” he said. “However, it must start now.”
Pope given cradleboard
The First Nations delegation left the Pope in possession of a cradleboard, a form of baby carrier common to various Indigenous societies in Canada.
Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty of the Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee said whether the Pope returned that cradleboard on Friday, at a general audience, would demonstrate his commitment to reconciliation.
“It is a symbol of every Indigenous child who went to residential school – for those who survived and, more importantly, for those who did not return home,” Chief Gull-Masty told reporters.
“The Holy Father has now been tasked with the responsibility to care for this cradleboard overnight and to reflect on the messages delivered by our delegates. If he’s truthful in his commitment to the Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island, then he will follow through with our request to return the cradleboard to our delegation at the general audience tomorrow.
“We stated to His Holiness: How you treat this cradleboard will demonstrate how you treat our people in the future. By returning the cradleboard to the delegation, he will demonstrate his commitment to our people.”
Like other delegations this week, the First Nations group urged the Pope to ensure the Church provides full access to residential school records and documents that might help Indigenous peoples identify their children as they conduct searches for unmarked burials at school sites. The Church is being called on to assist with the provision of mental health and cultural supports, too.
Fontaine, asked why he was so convinced the Pope would agree to deliver an apology in Canada, said: “I just think the time is right. The world has been watching us for some time now.”
Fontaine said the discovery of unmarked burials at residential school sites had shocked Canada out of its complacency and been understood worldwide.
“I was convinced, at that point,” he said, “that the Church had nowhere else to go in terms of moving forward with us.”