The former national chief is hopeful that the trip to the Vatican will produce an apology

Phil Fontaine is hopeful.

Fontaine, a former national head of the Assembly of First Nations, says he keeps that sentiment close to his heart as he prepares to make a second trip to the Vatican to ask the Pope to apologize for the role of the Catholic Church in residential schools.

He is determined that history will not repeat itself.

“What choice do they really have when the subject of the unmarked graves became an international story?” Fontaine asks.

“There is incredible pressure on the Catholic Church.”

An estimated 150,000 indigenous children were forced to attend residential schools. More than 60 percent of the schools were run by the Catholic Church.

Abuse within school walls was kept quiet nationally, despite whistleblowers and federal reports for decades. But the silence could not be kept after Fontaine spoke in 1990 about his own experiences as a child at Fort Alexander Residential School in Manitoba.

“In my third grade class, if there were 20 kids in this particular class, each of the 20 would have experienced what I experienced,” Fontaine told the CBC when he asked for research on church-run schools.

Fontaine was the great head of the Manitoba Assembly of Chiefs and his testimony immediately moved the country.

Accountability did not come so quickly.

The former national chief remains hopeful before his second trip to #Vatican. #PopeFrancis #ResidentialEscuelas

Nearly two decades later, with the Indian Residential Schools Accord, Fontaine would finally hear an apology from then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

“Memories of residential schools sometimes cut like ruthless knives in our souls. This day will help us put that pain behind,” Fontaine said in 2008 after the apology.

As the government publicly apologized, there were low-key closed-door conversations between Catholic Church leaders in Canada, Fontaine says. They wanted to organize a private meeting between a handful of indigenous leaders and Benedict, who was Pope at the time.

The following year, Fontaine walked the corridors of the Vatican with four other indigenous delegates to meet the Church leader. Fontaine says the delegation requested an apology during the brief meeting and hoped it would come.

But, in the end, Benedict only expressed his pain and “personal anguish.”

Fontaine kept his hope alive, even when it was accompanied by disappointment.

“In my opinion, it laid the foundation for this important moment. It is part of the continuum.”

More than another decade has passed, but Fontaine believes that now is the right time with the right pope to take the important step toward reconciliation.

Fontaine says a lot has changed since the last time he visited the Vatican.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada released an extensive report showing all Canadians and the world what happened in church-run schools. Canada also stopped its opposition to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Society began to speak about indigenous issues differently, Fontaine says.

The Catholic Church began having talks about another indigenous delegation to meet with Pope Francis a few years ago, he says. Plans were derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

But with the discovery last spring of hundreds of nameless graves on former residential school sites, the church came under immense pressure and speculative plans quickly came to fruition. The Vatican also recently announced that Pope Francis is willing to come to Canada.

This delegation is already very different from the first, says Fontaine. There is no longer a quiet conversation about the trip. Everything is being organized in a much more public way.

There will be more time allotted with the Pope: one hour for each of the First Nations, Métis and Inuit groups, as well as one hour with the Pope all together. Up to 30 indigenous delegates attend.

This time, Fontaine adds, First Nations delegates are compiling a document to help guide the Church and the Pope.

“It is important that we not only speak with the Holy Father, but that we leave something behind.”

Fontaine says the guide will include the expectation of an apology on Canadian soil and more on steps toward reconciliation and the recovery of documents and records.

Even after decades of work and the possibility of an apology in his sights, this is still just the beginning, Fontaine says.

“With all of that done, we can begin to have very serious discussions about the next steps.”

This Canadian Press report was first published on December 5, 2021.

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