Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Kúkpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir said she felt the responsibility of her people flowing through her as she handed Pope Francis a handwritten invitation to visit her territory.
Casimir and other Assembly of First Nations delegates met the pope on Thursday (March 31) at the Vatican, a meeting that followed the pope meeting with Métis and Inuit delegations earlier this week.
Tk’emlúps’ announced in May 2021 that a ground-penetrating radar survey on land near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School had shown signs of 200 probable graves, with confirmation dependent upon excavation of the site.
The announcement led to calls that the Roman Catholic Church be held accountable for its role in the residential school system from the early 1800s to 1996.
“For over 100 years, our people have been dealing with the devastating impacts of residential school,” Casimir said.
Casimir also gave the Pope an eagle feather beaded in orange with small crosses. It was to serve as a reminder of the children who went to residential schools, she said, and also that “there is still much truth to be uncovered” and the church must play a role.
“This is our collective history,” she said. “This is our history that we need to change for the hope for our children, our future generations. We all have to be a part of that difference.”
Casimir and other First Nations delegates were emotional as they walked out of a meeting with the Pope at the Vatican to rhythmic drumming by family and community members waiting for them in St. Peter’s Square.
The meeting with Francis had been set for one hour, but lasted for two hours.
Delegates said they shared stories of residential schools and requested the Doctrine of Discovery be rescinded and Indigenous lands returned. That papal decree of 1493 allowed lands not inhabited by Christians to be claimed.
They also asked that Pope Francis travel to Canada to apologize for the church’s role in residential schools and that the Catholic Church provide reparations to support healing.
The meeting marked the second time Phil Fontaine met a pope and requested an apology. He had asked that of former pope Benedict in 2009.
Fontaine, a former national chief, put abuses at the schools in the national spotlight in 1990 when he spoke about his own experiences as a child at the Fort Alexander Residential School in Manitoba.
Fontaine said he is certain that, this time, an apology will come. Unmarked graves found at several former residential school sites “shocked Canada out of its complacency” and have put incredible pressure on the church, he said.
“The eyes of the world were upon us here.”
While the Pope did not commit to an apology or even a trip to Canada, Fontaine said it has been suggested that the Holy Father could visit this summer. Fontaine expects the Pope to make that clear during a final meeting on Friday with First Nations, Metis and Inuit delegates.
An estimated 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend residential schools. More than 60 per cent of the schools were run by the Catholic Church.