Meeting with Pope: Bellegarde details key objectives

Former Assembly of First Nations (AFN) national chief Perry Bellegarde says an upcoming meeting between Indigenous leaders, residential school survivors and Pope Francis provides an “opportunity” to begin the process of retrieving institutional records.

In an interview on CTV’s Question Period airing Sunday, Bellegarde said the long-awaited meeting next week in Vatican City is a step in the right direction, but needs to be followed up with concrete action including the retrieval of vital documentation about the operations of the schools.

“I think they’ve got to start the process and start working with the survivors and the families and the different organizations to begin that process of working together to have access to those documents. It hasn’t been tried entirely before. So it’s got to begin and I think this is a great opportunity now to build on that work going forward,” he said.

The historic meeting, which has been postponed once due to COVID-19 already, will take place between March 28 and April 1. Separate delegations of Metis, Inuit and First Nation leaders will meet with the Pope during that time.

In a press conference Thursday, the AFN said their number one demand to the Pope will be for an official apology on Canadian soil.

“They must be accountable and acknowledge their responsibility for the great harm caused by their direct role in the institution of assimilation and genocide that they ran,” Gerald Antoine, AFN Northwest Territories regional chief, Dene Nation, and the lead for the First Nations delegation , said in the press conference.

The demand is reflected in point 58 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action, which addresses the role the Catholic Church had in the “spiritual, cultural, emotional, and sexual abuse” of First Nations, Inuit and Metis children these institutions.

It asks that the apology be similar to the 2010 apology issued to Irish victims of abuse and to occur within one year of the publishing of the 2015 report – a deadline that’s come and gone with no outcome.

While Pope Francis has agreed to meet with residential school survivors in their traditional territories in Canada later this year, so far there has been no commitment on an actual date.

Bellegarde said the record handover – documents that the former AFN chief says would help identify some of the lost children who attended residential schools – is critical to the path of reconciliation.

Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations Chief Bobby Cameron said the meeting next week gives him assurance there will be progress on this front.

“We feel confident that’s going to happen. Ultimately, getting every single piece of relevant information, relevant I say, because it has to boil down to every single detail being offered, directed for survivors in the communities. So until that happens, you know, we’ll continue to be cautious and aware,” he said, also during an interview on CTV’s Question Period.

Cameron added that there must be a First Nations presence as the records are being retrieved “from beginning to end.”

“What I mean by that is this: for all of these records, wherever they are, you have to have the survivors right there, front and center when these records are being distributed and discovered and pulled out of these files,” he said.

“To not have our survivors there, right off the bat, you lose trust.”

With files from CTV News’ Creeson Agecoutay and Alexandra Mae Jones.

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