Canadian Indigenous leaders' trip to Vatican delayed by Omicron variant concerns

Kamloops memorial Amemorial in Ottawa, Canada, in tribute to 215 indigenous children whose remains were found in unmarked graves at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, June 1, 2021. | meandering images/Shutterstock

The scheduled meeting between Pope Francis and a delegation from Canada has been delayed to 2022, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, Assembly of First Nations, Métis National Council, and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami announced in a joint statement on Tuesday, Dec. 7. 

“After careful assessment of the uncertainty and potential health risks surrounding international travel amid the recent spread of the Omicron variant, the Canadian Bishops, Assembly of First Nations, Métis National Council, and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami have jointly decided to reschedule a delegation to the Vatican in December 2021 to the earliest opportunity in 2022,” they said. 

“It is also important to note that the delegation is postponed, not canceled,” said the statement, adding that the Holy See advised that safety concerns of the delegates should be paramount in deciding when to travel to the Vatican. 

The delegation of approximately two dozen First Nations, Inuit, and Métis elders, knowledge keepers, survivors of residential schools, and young people, along with a “small group of Canadian bishops,” was due to meet with Pope Francis and other officials in the Vatican from Dec. 17-20. The visit had been in the works since June 2021, following the discovery of many unmarked gravesites at the site of former residential schools. 

“The decision to postpone was a heartbreaking one, made after careful consultation with

delegates, family members, community leaders, public health officials and the leadership of

each of the three National Indigenous Organizations,” said the statement, adding that there were additional concerns about the safety of elderly members of the delegation and those who live in remote communities in light of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus. 

“As more information becomes available, we will continue to assess the feasibility of future travel plans, based on guidance from the Canadian government and relevant international authorities,” they said. 

The Omicron variant was formally named at the end of November. It was first identified in South Africa, and scientists are still unsure about the transmissibility and lethality of this new variant.

Despite the delayed plans, the statement said the “shared commitment to walking together towards healing and reconciliation remains strong.”

“We understand that the Holy See is very much committed to rescheduling this visit in the new

year and we look forward to the opportunity for Indigenous Elders, knowledge keepers,

residential school survivors, and youth to participate in private meetings with Pope Francis,” they said. 

Once the delegation arrives in the Vatican, they intend to ask Pope Francis for an apology for the Church’s role in the country’s residential school system, as well as for the release of all records that relate to the residential schools, and for the return of any Indigenous items from Canada that the Vatican may possess in its archives.

In 2017, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a Catholic, requested that Pope Francis issue an apology for the Church’s role in the country’s residential school system. The pope declined to give an apology, but has repeatedly expressed “sorrow” at the various atrocities which occurred at the Church-administered schools. 

In late October, Pope Francis said he would be open to the idea of a papal visit to Canada. Should the visit happen, it would be the first time a pope has visited Canada since 2002, when St. Pope John Paul II visited the country for World Youth Day. 

Canada’s residential school system operated from the 1870s until 1996. First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children were separated from their families and sent to the schools, established by the federal government and run by Catholics and members of Protestant denominations, to force assimilation and strip them of familial and cultural ties.

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The Catholic Church, or Catholic religious orders, ran more than two-thirds of these schools.

According to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, an estimated 4,100 to 6,000 students died as a result of neglect or abuse in the schools. Many unmarked graves located on or near the locations of the former schools were discovered during the summer of 2021.

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