Residential school survivors granted audience with the Pope

TheGlobeandMail.com – News – Residential school survivors granted audience with the Pope
April 14, 2009.   JOE FRIESEN

A delegation of residential school survivors has been granted a rare private audience with the Pope in the Vatican, fuelling hope that Benedict XVI will apologize for abuse in institutions run by Roman Catholic missionary congregations.

The Pope will express his concern for aboriginal peoples in Canada who continue to suffer the impact of residential schools, according to the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, and will also present the survivors with a signed declaration of the church’s determination to work toward reconciliation with aboriginal people.

“It’s a historic and momentous occasion,” said native chief Phil Fontaine, who is leading the delegation. “We’ve had apologies from the other denominations, the United Church, the Presbyterian Church and the Anglican Church. We’ve had the historic apology from the Prime Minister on June 11. The one missing piece was the apology from the Catholic Church. When this happens we will be able to begin the important work of healing and reconciliation.”

It’s not known, however, how far Pope Benedict will go in his statement, or whether it will be the full apology that native leaders and elders are hoping to receive.
Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper (bottom L) and other MP’s listen as National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Phil Fontaine (R) speaks in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa June 11, 2008. Canada, seeking to close one of the darkest chapters in its history, formally apologized on Wednesday for forcing 150,000 aboriginal children into grim residential schools, where many say they were abused. REUTERS/Chris Wattie (CANADA)
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Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper and other MP’s listen as National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Phil Fontaine speaks in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa June 11, 2008. Canada, seeking to close one of the darkest chapters in its history, formally apologized on Wednesday for forcing 150,000 aboriginal children into grim residential schools, where many say they were abused. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)
The Globe and Mail

“We’re mindful of one thing, and that is traditionally the Catholic Church does not apologize,” said Mr. Fontaine, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. “But we hope and pray that there will be an apology, one that will acknowledge the harms inflicted upon innocent children and an acceptance of responsibility for their role in the tragic experience.”

Catholic Church missionary congregations ran nearly 75 per cent of Canada’s residential schools, which operated from the 1880s up to the 1980s, part of a policy of cultural assimilation whose goal was religious conversion and the extinguishing of native culture. Children were taken from their families against their will, and many suffered physical and sexual abuse at the schools.

The other religious denominations that ran residential schools began apologizing for their role in the 1980s, and only the Catholic Church has so far held out.

Mr. Fontaine met with Pope John Paul II more than 10 years ago in Rome, but made no statement on residential schools despite saying beforehand that he would raise the issue. The Vatican reportedly grew nervous at the prospect of residential schools being raised and downgraded the meeting from a private audience. Mr. Fontaine suffered sexual abuse at a school run by Catholics in Manitoba.

The meeting at the Vatican, scheduled for April 29, came about after more than two years of diplomatic efforts between native leaders and the Catholic Church, led by James Weisgerber, Archbishop of Winnipeg.

Mr. Fontaine said that as part of the negotiations, he forwarded a copy of the moving apology that Prime Minister Stephen Harper read from the floor of the House of Commons on June 11, 2008, as well as the statements from the leaders of the opposition and the AFN’s response.

“We’ve done that so His Holiness and the Vatican will have a reference on how we would like [them] to respond to this very tragic, sad experience,” Mr. Fontaine said.

Although many details are unresolved, Mr. Fontaine said he and four other residential school survivors will meet with the Pope after his Wednesday morning general audience. The meeting will also include representatives of the Catholic missionary congregations that ran the schools in Canada.

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