Pope Francis will visit Canada as the Catholic Church seeks to rebuild bridges with the indigenous community following a horrifying scandal of abuse at Church-run residential schools, the Vatican said Wednesday.
“The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops has invited the Holy Father to make an apostolic journey to Canada, also in the context of the long-standing pastoral process of reconciliation with indigenous peoples,” it said.
“His Holiness has indicated his willingness to visit the country on a date to be settled in due course.”
The Catholic Church in Canada in September apologised “unequivocally” to Canada’s indigenous peoples for a century of abuses at Church-run residential schools set up by the government under a policy of assimilation.
More than 1,200 unmarked graves have been discovered at three sites where indigenous children were forced to attend the schools, and searches are continuing for more sites.
Pope Francis has expressed his “pain” at the scandal but has not gone so far as to offer the apology that indigenous leaders are still calling for.
Assembly of First Nations national chief RoseAnne Archibald told AFP she is ready to welcome to pontiff when he comes to Canada “to issue a long overdue apology” to former students and their families.
“The Catholic Church must be accountable and acknowledge their responsibility for implementing and running these institutions of assimilation and genocide,” she said.
Her comments were echoed by Canada’s Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller, who told reporters in Ottawa the visit is “welcome news” and that the hope is Pope Francis will present “a full and complete apology to indigenous people” during the trip.
Archibald also called for reparations, including the handover of diocese lands, and for the Church to fund healing and support programs for indigenous people.
Some 150,000 Indian, Metis and Inuit children were enrolled from the late 1800s to the 1990s in 139 of the residential schools across Canada, spending months or years isolated from their families.
Many were physically and sexually abused by headmasters and teachers, and thousands are believed to have died of disease, malnutrition or neglect.