First Nations delegates say they believe Pope Francis will apologize for residential schools

First Nations delegates left a two-hour meeting at the Vatican Thursday saying they believe Pope Francis will soon apologize for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the residential school system.

The 14 delegates from the Assembly of First Nations met privately with Pope Francis at the Apostolic Palace. During the meeting — originally scheduled for one hour — delegates said they could hear First Nations drumming and singing from St. Peter’s Square inside the room.

While Pope Francis didn’t state clearly he would be issuing an apology, the words he used left delegates with a strong belief it will happen, said former Assembly of First Nations national chief Phil Fontaine.

“We heard the Holy Father say very clearly, “The Church is with you,” Fontaine said. 

Fontaine, a residential school survivor, said he believes Pope Francis could issue an official apology as soon as this summer. 

WATCH | Former Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner optimistic

Elder Wilton Littlechild spoke to a crowd following a day of meetings at Vatican City

3 hours ago

Duration 0:42

Littlechild offered words of hope as he spoke of reconciliation and a new relationship between First Nations communities and the Catholic Church. 0:42

Fontaine met with Pope Francis’ predecessor Pope Benedict XVI in 2009 in the Vatican. Pope Benedict issued an expression of regret at the time, but did not officially apologize.

The First Nations delegation presented Pope Francis with a cradle board — a traditional tool for carrying infants — as a symbol of every child who attended the institutions and those who never returned.

The delegation asked the Pope to care for the cradle board and reflect on its meaning before returning it Friday during a larger planned audience with all Indigenous representatives.

“We stated to his Holiness, ‘How you treat this cradle board will demonstrate how you treat our people in the future,'” said Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty of the Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee in Quebec.

“By returning the cradle board to the delegation, he will demonstrate his commitment to our people.”

Former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations Phil Fontaine, centre, walks with members of the First Nations delegation in St. Peter’s Square at the end of their meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican on March 31, 2022. (Andrew Medichini/AP)

Fred Kelly, the delegation’s spiritual adviser from the Ojibways of Onigaming First Nation, presented the Pope with a white feather.

“I told him in my language, ‘You are now known as white feather, to commemorate the eagle that has joined and now flies toward the white dove toward peace and harmony,'” he said.

Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Kúkpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir told CBC News the delegates told the Pope about the children who went missing from residential schools.

Last year, Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc reported the discovery of more than 200 unmarked graves near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in B.C.

“He heard the impacts … the importance and significance of things that need to be acknowledged and that have to be worked on moving forward,” Casimir said.

Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Kúkpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir said Pope Francis heard about the impact of residential schools and unmarked graves. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

Pope urged to revoke Doctrine of Discovery

The delegates also urged the Pope to release all residential school records held by his church and revoke centuries-old papal decrees used to justify the seizure of Indigenous land in the Americas by colonial powers.

Two papal bulls issued in 1455 and 1493 gave the church’s blessing to explorers’ claims to Africa and the Americas.

The Doctrine of Discovery is based largely on those papal bulls, issued by Pope Nicholas V and Pope Alexander VI.

“If you look at our history … what happened since they landed on our shores, then basically it’s genocide,” said Gerald Antoine, Dene national chief-elect and AFN regional chief of the Northwest Territories.

“We need to right the wrong.”

WATCH | Lead AFN delegate Gerald Antoine hopes to establish new relationship with Pope Francis

Indigenous delegation gives Pope Francis a cradleboard symbolizing residential school survivors

2 hours ago

Duration 8:13

Assembly of First Nations delegation lead Regional Chief Gerald Antoine says he hopes the delegation can forge a new relationship with Pope Francis and the Catholic Church after the visit to the Vatican. 8:13

Scrapping the doctrine would fulfil the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s call to action 49, which urges all religious and faith groups to repudiate concepts used to justify European sovereignty over Indigenous lands and people.

The Doctrine of Discovery declared lands held by Indigenous Peoples to be terra nullius — Latin for “nobody’s land.”

Kaluhyanu;wes Michelle Schenandoah, a member of the Oneida Nation, said the basis for the doctrine was the belief that non-Christian Indigenous Peoples were without souls.

“Because we didn’t have souls, that gave the right for these explorers to do whatever they wanted with Indigenous Peoples — murder, rape, enslave,” she said.

Schenandoah said the doctrine has shaped the mentality and behaviour of Western culture for centuries.

Pope called upon to ‘take the first step’

She also said there’s a direct connection between the doctrine and the disappearances and deaths of Indigenous women in Canada.

In many pre-contact Indigenous nations, she said, women had the final say on how the land was used — making them obstacles to European exploration and settlement.

“When you look at how these countries have treated Indigenous women, we are on the bottom rung,” Schenandoah said. “Because the doctrine has placed us in this place of being invisible and dispensable, therefore the countries treat us this way.

“What gives any human or nation the right to claim dominion over any other human or nation anywhere in this world?”

Mandy Gull-Masty is the Grand Chief of the Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee in Quebec. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

The doctrine worked its way into law and influenced Canada’s Indian Act, land claims and the residential school system.

Bruce McIvor, partner at First Peoples Law in Vancouver, said the Pope could change things in Canada by renouncing the doctrine.

“It would create impetus in Canada for the courts and governments to get serious about addressing this fundamental lie that’s at the foundation of non-Indigenous claims to Indigenous lands in Canada,” he said.

McIvor said the federal government could also pass a law revoking the doctrine.

“If the Pope took the first step, that would create impetus for the federal government to do the same thing,” he said.

Kaluhyanu;wes Michelle Schenandoah, a member of the Oneida Nation, wears an intricate cradle board in Rome that she presented to Pope Francis. (HO-Katsisionni Fox/Canadian Press)

McIvor said he believes the lingering influence of the doctrine is the reason reconciliation continues to fail in Canada.

“When we hear the word reconciliation, what most Canadians don’t realize is that is invoking the Doctrine of Discovery,” McIvor said.

“Because when the courts and … government say reconciliation, they mean reconciling with this fundamental lie that colonizers can just show up and claim Indigenous lands.”