Pope Francis meets with Canadian Indigenous leaders who are pushing for an apology for residential schools

At the Vatican, representatives of the Métis and Inuit, some of Canada’s largest indigenous groups, called on Pope Francis to travel to their country to apologize for the Catholic Church’s role in the school system.

During both hour-long meetings, the pope intended to “listen and make space for the painful stories brought by the survivors,” the Vatican said in a statement.

The meetings come after hundreds of unmarked graves were discovered on the grounds of former boarding schools in British Columbia and Saskatchewan last year. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has reported that more than 4,000 Indigenous children have died of either neglect or abuse in boarding schools, many of which are run by the Catholic Church.

Last year, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops apologized for its role in the hostel system and expressed “deep regret,” but Indigenous leaders have long asked for an apology from the pope.

“We know that reconciliation is a long road and requires commitment and action from so many people. It will require action from churches, parishioners, the Canadian Bishops’ Conference – the Catholic Church as a whole and the Pope.” Cassidy Caron, president of the Métis National Council, told reporters after Monday’s meeting.

“Reconciliation did not begin today with a meeting with Pope Francis, nor does it end here. This is just a stepping stone on that journey,” added Caron.

In addition to her apology, Natan Obed, the president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, said the delegation had asked the pope to consider whether the church should also use its resources to help with the work involved in discovering unmarked graves connected to school premises.

“A lot of what happened in boarding schools happened to people who are no longer alive, but that’s not always the case. And there are still things we can do together to make sure there is justice for those who don’t have it yet,” Obed told reporters.

Thousands of children from Canada's schools for indigenous communities could be buried in unmarked graves, officials say

Martha Greig, a boarding school survivor who was part of the Inuit delegation, said she told the Pope she wanted him to travel to Canada to make a “sincere, heartfelt apology” because there were many families who would have to heal and “move on”. “

“As a former boarding school student, that would mean a lot to me, but even more to my former classmates. Many of them have now passed away, but their children have also been affected,” Greig told reporters.

The groups thanked the pope for his time, Obed said, adding, “There was also a true sense of openness and kindness shown to us as a delegation.”

The Vatican has announced that several more meetings with the Canadian delegations will take place this week.

Earlier this month, the Kapawe’no First Nation announced the discovery of 169 potential unmarked graves at the former St. Bernard Mission School on the Grouard Mission site. The potential graves were identified using ground-penetrating radar (GPR) and drone imagery, officials said. The Catholic Church opened St. Bernard Mission School in 1894 and closed it in 1961, according to Canada’s National Center for Truth and Reconciliation.

CNN’s Hada Messiah contributed to this report.

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