Saskatoon StarPhoenix

Fontaine seeks residentia­l school apology from Pope


OTTAWA — Assembly of First Nations National Chief Phil Fontaine got his apology from Canada. Now he’s seeking satisfacti­on from a higher order.

Fontaine will lead a delegation of Canadian Native leaders to Rome later this month for an audience with Pope Benedict XVI, where Fontaine will ask for an apology from the Catholic Church for its role in the residentia­l school saga.

It’s the second time Fontaine has attempted to raise the issue of residentia­l schools with a sitting Pope. He tried a decade ago with Pope John Paul II, but he never got the chance to bring it up during their meeting.

“The task of healing and reconcilia­tion for survivors, Catholics and all Canadians will be greatly assisted if the Pope formally acknowl- edges the Indian residentia­l school system and the harms it inflicted on our people,” Fontaine said in Ottawa on Wednesday. “A lot of good will come from this meeting.

“This is a moral issue for many of us, not a liability issue. We dealt with that matter through the Indian residentia­l school settlement agreement.”

The delegation of aboriginal leaders, elders and residentia­l school survivors will arrive at the Vatican on April 29 for a general audience with the Pope that will last about an hour.

Five members of the group, including Fontaine, will then have a 15-minute private meeting with the Pope, where it is expected the pontiff will provide a written text that acknowledg­es the role the Catholic Church played in the residentia­l school story.

Archbishop James Weisgerber, president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and a former Saskatoon bishop, said the Catholic Church has had a close associatio­n with aboriginal­s since the earliest European settlement­s.

“Most of this history has been a wonderful sharing of faith and goodness, but there have also been moments of sorrow. Among the greatest disappoint­ments were the former Indian residentia­l schools,” Weisgerber said on Wednesday.

More than 150,000 aboriginal children were forced into residentia­l schools, which started up in the late 1800s and were made compulsory in the 1920s. The schools were run by churches on behalf of the federal government in an attempt to assimilate Native children into mainstream Canadian culture.

At their peak in the 1930s, 80 residentia­l schools operated in seven provinces with an annual enrolment of 17,000. About 75 per cent of them were run by the Catholic Church.

Students were taken from their families against their will and forced into the boarding schools, where they were banned from speaking their own language or practising any cultural traditions.

Thousands of students also reported physical and sexual abuse, including Fontaine. Many of the schools were also rife with disease, and the government has only just begun to research how many students died in the schools.

Fontaine, who grew up in Sagkeeng, Man., was a victim of sexual abuse at the Fort Alexander residentia­l school run by the Catholic Church. He said he was “pleasantly surprised” when he first found out about the meeting with the Pope.

Fontaine is not expecting an actual apology from the Pope, but said a formal acknowledg­ment of what happened is enough.

“This meeting has the potential to be a historic and momentous occasion,” Fontaine said.

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