Apology during papal visit to Canada is “most pressing” issue: Fontaine

In 2009, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Phil Fontaine met Pope Benedict XVI in an audience at the Vatican. (CNS file photo - Catholic Register, CCN)

By Michael Swan, The Catholic Register

When Chief Phil Fontaine arrives in Rome to meet with Vatican officials and Pope Francis this December, he will be laser focused on having the Holy Father apologize on Canadian soil, in an Indigenous context, for the damage done to children and communities by Catholic participation in the residential school system.

“It’s been quite evident for some time what is the most pressing issue as far as Indigenous people are concerned — I’m referring to the three national organizations that represent the Metis, Inuit and First Nations — they’re all focused on an apology from the Pope, the Holy Father,” Fontaine told The Catholic Register.

Fontaine has been chosen by the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs to represent Manitoba as part of the First Nations delegation to the Vatican Dec. 17-20. On Oct. 28, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis has accepted the invitation of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) to visit Canada. The announcement said that Pope Francis “has indicated his willingness to visit the country on a date to be settled in due course,” with the visit happening “in the context of the long-standing pastoral process of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.”

A CCCB release Oct. 28 said that in anticipation of the eventual papal visit to Canada, the December delegation to Rome will have a role: “the planned delegation of Indigenous survivors, Elders, knowledge keepers and youth will travel to the Holy See, where they will have the opportunity to speak to Pope Francis about the timing, focus, and themes in preparation for his future pilgrimage to Canada.

The visit to Rome by Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, Assembly of First Nations and Métis National Council representatives has been organized and sponsored by the CCCB.

A three-time National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations and former Grand Chief of the Manitoba Assembly of First Nations, Chief Phil Fontaine was part of the first wave of residential school survivors to speak out publicly about systemic abuse he and others endured in residential schools and the damage it did to families and communities. As National Chief, Fontaine led negotiations for the 2006 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, the largest class action lawsuit in Canadian history.

In 2009 Fontaine met with Pope Benedict XVI in Rome. At that private audience, Benedict expressed sorrow for the suffering of Indigenous residential school survivors.

“This (2021 visit to Rome) is a continuation of the work that was undertaken then,” Fontaine said.

Given 633 First Nations communities across Canada, the vast expanse of Inuit territory and many Métis communities, one of the difficult decisions that must be made about a papal visit will be where exactly the apology should be made, said Fontaine.

“It’s going to be a difficult challenge to determine where the Holy Father will choose, in concert with the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and the organizations who will meet him — the three delegations— as to where this may take place,” he said. “When we say Canadian soil, we’re talking about an Indigenous community as the place where this will take place.”

Such an apology would fulfill the demands of Call to Action #58, one of the 94 Calls to Action contained in the 2015 final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Discussions about a papal apology to fulfil Call to Action #58 began at the CCCB soon after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued its 5,000-page report.

“We call upon the Pope to issue an apology to Survivors, their families, and communities for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children in Catholic-run residential schools. We call for that apology to be similar to the 2010 apology issued to Irish victims of abuse and to occur within one year of the issuing of this Report and to be delivered by the Pope in Canada.” – #58, Calls to Action, Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)

“We have been working at it for many years and more precisely over the past three years with renewed zeal,” then CCCB president and St.-Jean Longueil Bishop Lionel Gendron wrote to retired judge George Valin Sept. 9, 2019. “Five years and they still don’t have him coming here? They haven’t figured out how?” asked Valin of North Bay, Ont. Valin has dedicated himself to seeing Call to Action #58 fulfilled since shortly after the TRC reported. In 2018 the CCCB released a statement saying Pope Francis “could not personally respond” to Call to Action #58 at that time.

Only 14 of the 94 Calls to Action have been fulfilled, according to a June 30 inventory by the B.C. Treaty Commission. Twenty-three are in progress with projects underway and 37 are in progress with projects proposed. Twenty have yet to be started.

According to the CCCB, the purpose of this year’s trip to Rome is to “provide Pope Francis with a unique opportunity to hear directly from Indigenous peoples, express his heartfelt closeness, address the impact of colonization and learn more about the Church involvement in residential schools.”

Even as young Indigenous disengage from the Catholic faith of their elders, a papal apology is still important, said Fontaine.

“We’re in a process of transition,” he said. “There are more and more of our people who have adopted or embraced their traditional values and their traditions and the rituals that go along with those, because those were outlawed until very recently. So they’ve embraced these. On the other hand, there are still many people who remain devout Catholics.”