Ontario Indigenous communities hope visit with Pope Francis will bring ‘concrete action’

Ahead of a meeting with Pope Francis next week, some Indigenous communities in Ontario are hopeful the trip will not only lead to an apology from the Roman Catholic Church for its role in Canada’s residential school system, but also concrete action. 

“What this has the potential to be is the start of something new,” said Mitch Case, a regional councillor with the Métis Nation of Ontario who is part of the Métis National Council’s delegation heading to Rome.

The trip, which is supposed to lay the groundwork for Pope Francis’s visit to Canada, was originally planned for December but was postponed due to the spread of the Omicron variant. The delegation will seek an official apology from the church for its role in running residential schools. The visit comes in the wake of the discovery of what are believed to be hundreds of children’s graves on the former sites of some of the schools over the last couple of years. 

Case made this beaded vest to wear to the meeting with Pope Francis. It features antique beads in traditional Métis floral patterns and symbolizes the values and perspectives of his people. (Submitted by Mitch Case)

Telling their stories

Case, whose grandmother attended Shingwauk residential school in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont, has also worked closely with other survivors of the school who were part of the Children of Shingwauk Alumni Association. He handed out t-shirts at gatherings every summer and wrote grant proposals. 

Many of those “grandmas” have since died, but Case wants to give voice to their pain through the survivors. 

“It’s our responsibility to go there, to listen and to create that space for [the Métis delegation] to tell their stories.” 

The 32 official Indigenous delegates were chosen by the Assembly of First Nations, Métis National Council and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami.

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, which is organizing the trip, is also hoping for an apology. 

“There’s a sense of hope,” said Bishop William McGrattan, from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Calgary who hails from London, Ont. 

“It’s our hope [Pope Francis] can express words of apology.” 

‘He should hear that first-hand’

Sol Mamakwa, Ontario NDP MPP for Kiiwetinoong, is hopeful an Indigenous delegation’s meeting with Pope Francis will bring change. (Colin Perkel/The Canadian Press)

Sol Mamakwa, the NDP MPP who represents the riding of Kiiwetinoong, isn’t going to Rome, but he will be watching what comes out of the meetings. He attended residential school in his teens. 

“When I look back on it, I think certainly it has had an impact on who I am today…my language, the length of my hair.” 

Mamakwa said the visit is meaningful to him because it will be a chance for survivors to tell the Pope about their experiences in residential school and the impact it had on their lives, families and communities. 

“He should hear that first-hand.”

Others are more skeptical about the meetings. 

Isaiah Shafqat is the Indigenous student trustee for the Toronto District School Board. (Submitted by Isaiah Shafqat)

“We always hear about apologies or promises, but too often they’re broken,” said Isaiah Shafqat, the Indigenous student trustee for the Toronto District School Board. 

“I’m hoping it not only starts a conversation, but also leads to concrete action.”

Mamakwa says the Vatican must release any archival records relating to residential schools in Canada. 

On March 19, the Catholic order that ran 48 residential schools in Canada announced it will open its archives to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. The head of archives for the centre will be visiting the Rome archives of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate as early as next month to review and digitize residential school-related records. 

“I don’t know how well the Pope will listen. I don’t know if he will hear us,” said Mamakwa.

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