Canadian First Nations Delegation Meets Pope Benedict XVI

By Lloyd Dolha

A delegation of 40 First Nations representatives from Canada attended an audience with his Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI, in St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican City in Rome on April 29th. Following the outdoor audience, Pope Benedict met with Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Phil Fontaine as well as other First Nations leaders, elders, residential school survivors, and Canadian Catholic bishops in a short private meeting.

The Pope expressed his sorrow that generations of Aboriginal Canadians were physically and sexually abused at church-run residential schools and offered his sympathy and prayers that all those affected would experience healing. Pope Benedict expressed his “personal anguish” over their suffering and encouraged them to move forward with renewed hope.

The delegates presented his Holiness with a number of gifts that symbolized the culture and spirituality of the First Nations of Canada. Among these gifts were an eagle feather, traditional beaded moccasins and gloves, a porcupine quill box designed with the AFN insignia, a bible translated into the Dene language, and a silver crucifix commissioned for the occasion symbolizing reconciliation between Canada’s First Nations and the Catholic Church.

More than 150,000 aboriginal children were forced to attend residential schools, which operated from the late 19th century well into the ‘70s. Grand Chief Ed John said, “We just wanted for the Pope to understand that there’s also another side to Indian residential schools.” He said there are still many devout Catholics among survivors and told the Pope about Rose Prince, a woman who spent most of her life at the Lejac residential school in Fraser Lake, first as a student and later as an employee. When the school was shut down in 1951 (two years after her death), a construction project accidentally unearthed her grave and opened her casket, where witnesses said the body was surprisingly intact. According to Canadian Catholic bishops, a body that does not decay is a miracle and a possible indication of Sainthood. “Yes, that’s sign,” the Pope said.

A Vatican statement issued after the meeting stated, “Given the suffering that some indigenous children experienced in the Canadian residential school system, the Holy Father expressed his sorrow at the anguish caused by the deplorable conduct of some members of the Church and offered his sympathy and prayerful solidarity.”

AFN leader Phil Fontaine said, “Our struggle has reached a decisive moment. While the past must never be forgotten, our destiny lies in building a future with enduring foundations, the cornerstone of which is forgiveness.” Fontaine, a residential school survivor himself, said the meeting was a moving and extraordinary moment for all involved. He said it was the highpoint of his own lifelong work to bring resolution to the legacy of the Indian residential schools. “I sensed his anguish and pain,” said the AFN leader in an interview. “He acknowledged our suffering and that is important to me.”