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Pope Francis says he felt the pain of Indigenous Peoples during trip to Canada

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller says a lack of action would be the worst thing to follow an apology for residential schools as Pope Francis reflects on his historic journey to Canada.
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Pope Francis leaves the Citadelle in the popemobile following a reconciliation ceremony during his papal visit across Canada in Quebec City on Wednesday, July 27, 2022. Pope Francis says he felt the pain of Indigenous Peoples during his trip to Canada but also left with a sense of hope. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller says a lack of action would be the worst thing to follow an apology for residential schools as Pope Francis reflects on his historic journey to Canada.

Miller said Wednesday there is a renewed focus on recognizing that what happened in residential schools was genocide after the Pope used the term last week following his visit to Alberta, Quebec and Nunavut.

Miller added there must be unanimous consent from members of Parliament in the House of Commons in order to have the Canadian government adopt that language when describing the institutions. 

"The worst thing you could have after such a historic apology … is for nothing to happen afterward," Miller said in Peepeekisis Cree Nation, in southeastern Saskatchewan.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said he continues to accept the conclusion from the 2019 inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls that "what happened amounts to genocide."

Governments are bad at affecting culture change, Miller said, but added there is a desire across society for people to inform themselves about the history of residential schools. 

"I’m hopeful, with the visit of the Pope, that that will turn people’s minds that don’t think about these issues every day," he said. 

The six-day journey to Canada saw Francis meet with Indigenous people and residential school survivors during stops and repeatedly apologize for some members of the Roman Catholic Church's role in the institutions. 

In a general audience in Vatican City on Wednesday, Francis said he felt the pain of Indigenous Peoples but also left with a sense of hope.

"In these meetings, especially the last one, I had to feel the blows of the pain of those people, what they had lost … the elderly who had (lost) their children and did not know what had become of them, due to this policy of assimilation," Francis said.

"It was a very painful moment, but one we must face up to. We must face up to our errors, our sins."

Throughout the trip, the Pope also begged for forgiveness for cultural destruction and forced assimilation.

An estimated 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend residential schools in Canada, where neglect and physical and sexual abuse were rampant. More than 60 per cent of the schools were run by the Catholic Church.

The Pope said there were many joyful moments throughout his travels and thanked Canadians for their warm welcome and great hospitality.

But the overall meaning and tone was reflection, repentance and reconciliation, he said. 

Francis said the fortitude of Indigenous Peoples can be an example to all people "not to close themselves up."

"But to offer their indispensable contribution for a more fraternal humanity, that knows how to love creation and the creator, in harmony with creation."

However, some Indigenous leaders say they are disappointed by the Pope's pilgrimage and apologies, saying it fell short on many fronts.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief RoseAnne Archibald said the Pope stopped short of denouncing the Catholic Church's role as an institution in creating systems that spiritually and physically harmed Indigenous people. She said the apology felt "incomplete."

“The fact that the Vatican has not addressed these properly in the Pope’s speech is a real indication that they’re not listening," Archibald said in a recent news release. 

"They’re not hearing First Nations’ concerns. That, to me, has been reflective of this whole tour.”

She said Francis also failed to respond to calls to revoke the Doctrine of Discovery, papal bulls used to justify colonization, as well as return diocese land and sacred items to Indigenous communities.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 3, 2022.

— With files from Mickey Djuric in Peepeekisis Cree Nation

Kelly Geraldine Malone, The Canadian Press