Plans for Pope’s Canada trip criticized by native leaders 

July 25, 2022 - 19:28

The Assembly of Canada’s First Nations National Chief, RoseAnne Archibald, has criticized the “unilateral” planning of the Pope’s visit to the country.

Archibald was among the delegation that greeted Pope Francis on his arrival at Edmonton, Alberta, airport in what has been described as a historic visit to apologize for Canada’s deadly abuse of indigenous children at residential schools funded by the government and run by the church. 

Speaking to reporters at a news conference after the Pope’s welcoming ceremony, Archibald said "they have not been really including us in the proper planning of this process. It’s been very unilateral and we don’t feel that it has been about survivors, [of the residential schools] It has been more about the Church.”

Archibald went on to denounce the "archaic" nature of the church in Canada. In a letter addressed to Archbishop Richard Smith of the Catholic Archdiocese of Edmonton city (the capital of Alberta province) on Friday, she highlighted the failure of providing information about the Pope’s visit to the Native American community leaders and survivors of the residential school system. 

“Despite a lack of concrete or written information about what’s happening specifically across the country, my staff and I were able to glean from information released to public through the papal visit website and press clippings what we understand to be the Pope’s itinerary.” 

When Pope Francis visits Maskwacis city in Alberta, the site of the former Ermineskin Indian Residential School where mass graves were discovered last year, to deliver an anticipated apology for the Catholic Church’s role in Canada’s residential school system, Archibald will not be welcoming the Pontiff or briefly speak on stage as the Office of the National Chief initially believed. 

Archibald told the media on Sunday she had only just been told on the same day she wouldn’t be speaking officially at Maskwacis, despite being accepted as part of the country’s official delegation to welcome the Pope when he landed. 

“We had asked as National Chief that I’d be given a minute or two to welcome the Pope to Maskwacis and be a part of that official welcome to that territory along with the Chief and the Grand Chiefs, and I was told today by Archbishop Smith that that just wasn’t going to happen.”

In statements previously published on the office of the National chief website, she had raised concern that the First Nations were not being “the driving force in the planning of this state visit,” saying that they had been kept to the “periphery of the planning process” while the Church planned the majority of events.

During the press conference, Archibald also hit out at the Church for using the trip to raise funds.

“it has been more about the Church promoting the Church’s idea, fundraising for the Church when they’re asking people to pick up their ticket,” she said.

Those seeking to reserve tickets for the pope’s event on the main booking website have been prompted to donate money to “the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops” which the Assembly of First Nations National Chief labelled as “inappropriate”.

“I want to remind people that this is about survivors, that this whole process is about supporting and standing beside and standing behind our survivors,” she said. “We have to refocus on what we’re really doing here, and that’s about survivors accepting – or not accepting – and listening to that apology from the Pope.”

Archibald’s family members including her mother and siblings all attended St. Anne’s residential school in northern Ontario. 

“Four members of my immediate family were in an institution of assimilation and genocide, and so even as I flew here, I was just so overcome with emotion and there were different times on the plane where I really had to stop myself from breaking into a deep sob,” she said. 

“I’m an intergenerational trauma survivor, and there’s so many people like me, but there’s actual survivors that are going to be at the event tomorrow, and the emotional level there is going to be so raw and high in terms of pain and suffering.”

“The first thing I did [when welcoming Pope Francis at Edmonton Airport], on behalf of First Nations across Turtle Island, I welcomed him to the land,” she added. “This was a promise that I had made, that when he made his journey here, I would greet him, and so that was part of it. I also asked him to revoke the Doctrine of Discovery, that was one of my requests when I saw him, and I also told him I’m really looking forward to his apology tomorrow in Maskwacis.”

The Assembly of First Nations say the “Doctrine of Discovery emanates from a series of formal statements from the Pope and extensions, originating in the 1400s. Discovery was used as legal and moral justification for colonial dispossession of sovereign Indigenous Nations, including First Nations in what is now Canada.”

“During the European ‘Age of Discovery’, Christian explorers ‘claimed’ lands for their monarchs who felt they could exploit the land, regardless of the original inhabitants.”

“This was invalidly based on the presumed racial superiority of European Christian peoples and was used to dehumanize, exploit and subjugate Indigenous Peoples and dispossess us of our most basic rights. This was the very foundation of genocide. Such ideology leads to practices that continue through modern-day laws and policies.”

Despite being told she cannot speak at the event, Archibald will join the survivors in the crowd. 

“It’s the only event I’ll attend because it’s on one of the former institutes of assimilation and genocide, and so I think it’s important to be there with survivors,” she said. 

Also addressing the same press conference was Victoria Arcand, an elder from Alexander First Nation, who said the visit was long overdue.

“I think this visit is kind of long overdue. Maybe it’s something that should have happened many, many years ago. Maybe they start of reconciliation would have started then,” she noted.

From the mid-1800s all the way to 1996, Indigenous children were forced to attend residential schools across Canada, which were intended to erase their culture and language in what an official investigative committee labeled as cultural genocide. An estimated 150,000 children went through this system, suffering severe neglect as well as physical and sexual abuse. 

The Canadian government created and funded the system, while the majority of them were directly run by the Catholic Church.

For years now, there have been calls for the Pope to apologize in person on behalf of the Catholic Church. 

Despite Canada’s government leaders knowing about the high numbers of children dying in the school system since 1907, those calls grew louder with the grizzly discovery, last year, of hundreds of unmarked graves of native children that were identified and discovered at the former residential schools.

The discoveries made by indigenous Canadians, using advanced radar technology, is widely believed to be just a small portion of the many native children that went missing. 

Canada’s indigenous leaders say the native community will try and seek some comfort from the Pope’s visit but is still demanding more from the government and the Catholic Church including the release of school records, compensation, the return of Indigenous artifacts, support for extraditing an accused abuser, and the rescinding of the 15th-century doctrine justifying colonial dispossession of Indigenous people. 

Speaking to reporters on the plane before it landed, the Pope said that the six-day visit must be handled with care.

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