TORONTO (AP) — When a delegation from the Assembly of First Nations traveled to the Vatican in 2009 to meet with Pope Benedict XVI, the pontiff told them in a private meeting of his “personal anguish” over to the abuse suffered by Aboriginal children in the church. run residential schools they were forced to attend in Canada.

What was then called an expression of deep and heartfelt regret is no longer seen as enough after the discovery last year in British Columbia of about 200 unmarked children’s graves and previously undocumented at what was Canada’s largest Indian residential school – one of many grim sites across the country.

Now, Indigenous leaders expect nothing less than a public apology from Pope Francis, with government officials down to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau lending their support to their cause. Scheduled to meet with First Nations, mestizo and Inuit survivors at the Vatican next week ahead of a visit to Canada that could take place later this year, the pontiff seems likely to issue such an apology for the church’s role in the abuses. boarding schools.

“We’re trying to give a voice to the voiceless by going there,” said Gary Gagnon, who will represent Métis people of mixed European and Indigenous ancestry on the delegation. Originally scheduled for last December, the visit was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

More than 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend state-funded Christian schools from the 19th century until the 1970s in an effort to isolate them from the influence of their homes and cultures, to Christianize them and assimilate them into mainstream society, which previous governments considered superior.

The government has admitted physical and sexual abuse is rampant, with students beaten for speaking their native language. This legacy of abuse and isolation has been cited by Indigenous leaders as a root cause of the epidemic rates of alcohol and drug addiction on reservations.

Nearly three quarters of the 130 boarding schools were run by Catholic missionary congregations.

Last May, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Nation announced the discovery of burial sites near Kamloops, British Columbia, discovered using ground-penetrating radar. The sites have yet to be excavated, but they have renewed a national reckoning as Indigenous groups across the country search for graves at other boarding schools.

“What really got things going was Kamloops,” said Phil Fontaine, who was national chief of the Assembly of First Nations in 2009 and led the delegation that met with Benedict. “It caught the attention of so many people.”

Fontaine, 77, said he and his classmates suffered physical and sexual abuse as a child at Fort Alexander Indian Residential School in Manitoba, where he was forbidden to see his family except for two hours on Sundays , even if they lived nearby.

“Finally, Canadians say, ‘Oh, so it’s true. This is what happened in boarding schools,” he added. “And I think that put a lot of pressure on the Catholic Church and the Vatican. Don’t forget that the Prime Minister himself asked Francis to apologize.

Fontaine calls for the pope’s visit to Canada, which the Vatican has announced but not yet set a date, to take place on Indigenous lands.

A National Truth and Reconciliation Commission holds records of at least 51 children who died at the Kamloops school between 1915 and 1963.

Nationally, the commission identified about 3,200 confirmed deaths at residential schools in poor conditions, some due to tuberculosis, but noted that the cause of death was not recorded for nearly half of them. ‘between them. Common practice was not to return the bodies of deceased students to their communities; the commission said the government wanted to cut costs.

The Bishop of Calgary, William McGrattan, vice-president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the church hopes next week’s meeting at the Vatican will be a historic moment for all Canadians, but “especially for our First Nations and our Métis”.

“They will bring their own stories and the stories of their communities,” McGrattan said. “Pope Francis and the bishops will listen and respond to ensure that we embark on this path of reconciliation.”

Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a formal apology for the residential schools in Parliament in 2008, calling them a sad chapter in Canadian history and saying the policy of forced assimilation had done a lot of harm.

As part of the settlement of a lawsuit involving the government, churches and the approximately 90,000 surviving students, Canada paid reparations amounting to billions of dollars transferred to Indigenous communities.

The Catholic Church, for its part, contributed more than $50 million and now plans to add another $30 million over the next five years.

The United, Presbyterian and Anglican churches have already apologized for their role.

Canada’s boarding schools were based on similar facilities in the United States, where Catholic and Protestant denominations operated more than 150 boarding schools between the 19th and 20th centuries, researchers say, which were also home to rampant abuse.

While the issue has received relatively little attention in the United States, Fontaine believes a day of judgment is approaching for Canada’s southern neighbor.

The purpose of the residential school systems, he argued, was nothing less than cultural genocide.

“They decided the best way to do that was to lock the kids up in boarding schools, forbid them to speak an indigenous language, and forget about their culture,” Fontaine said. “In fact, embrace everything that was not them in terms of culture and tradition, in accordance with federal government policy.”

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