TORONTO -- While Pope Francis may visit Canada amid calls for him to apologize for the Catholic Church's role in residential schools, Indigenous leaders say his visit must be "more than a gesture" in order to have an impact on reconciliation.

The Vatican said in a statement Wednesday that Pope Francis is willing to visit Canada, after the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops invited him in the "context of the long-standing pastoral process of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples."

The statement said the Pope indicated his "willingness" to do so at an undetermined date.

Having the Pope apologize for the Catholic Church's role is one of the 94 calls to action by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), outlined back in 2015.

Pam Palmater, who is the chair of Indigenous governance at Ryerson University, told CTV News Channel Wednesday that it is not enough for Pope Francis to simply visit Canada.

"The TRC was very specific about not just coming here, but making an apology, providing whatever funds are needed to do all of the memorial and identifying of these unmarked graves, to also compensate the victims… so it's far more than just a visit to have any real impact on reconciliation," Palmater said.

Palmater said Pope Francis also needs to offer a "very purposeful and intentional" apology. She said the Pope should take a "full acceptance of responsibility" for the Catholic Church's role in helping run Canada's residential schools and specifically apologize for "the horrific genocide and abuse that happened in those schools."

The last residential school in Canada closed in 1996, with more than 150,000 First Nations, Metis and Inuit children forced to attend the facilities between the 1870s and 1996, according to the TRC.

The facilities were designed to strip Indigenous people of their culture and language, and replace them with a Christian faith and the English language. There were 139 residential schools in the federally-funded program, many of which were run by the Catholic Church.

The TRC's final report estimates that 6,000 children died while attending the schools, although many say the number could be as high as 15,000.

While advocates and survivors have continued to press for the Vatican to issue a formal apology for the Catholic Church's role in running many of these government-funded, church-operated institutions, it's been to no avail.

There was also no mention of an apology from the Pope in the Vatican's statement Wednesday.

However, Rose LeMay, CEO of Indigenous Reconciliation Group, does expect an apology from the Pope in the future, possibly during his potential visit to Canada.

"I wouldn't be surprised if he didn't make a commitment before he actually comes here, [but] I'm not too worried about that. I do not think the Catholic Church can walk away from a visit to Canada without an apology. I really don't see that as a reasonable outcome," LeMay told CTV News Channel on Wednesday.


While a papal apology may happen, LeMay said there is no guarantee that all First Nations, Inuit and Metis will accept it. She said the Catholic Church has to offer more than just words in order to reconcile with these groups, including compensation for survivors and victims' families, releasing church documents related to residential schools, and return Indigenous land.

Despite this, LeMay says a possible visit from the Pope is a "good step forward" in Indigenous people’s path to healing.

"For the people who are looking forward to it, this will be a day that they will mark in a similar way as the apology from the Canadian government," she said. "It will be a huge day for a number of survivors and for a number of families and communities."

However, LeMay noted that not everyone will feel that way and that the response will be "mixed." She said Pope Francis may do more harm and re-traumatize Indigenous people if he comes to Canada and in fact does not apologize for the Catholic Church's part in residential schools.

"There will be some survivors who are still working through their healing [and] it may be triggering, there may be anger involved, there are a whole bunch of emotions and they're all part of the process of working through this," LeMay said.

The Canadian government formally apologized for residential schools in 2008. In addition, the Presbyterian, Anglican and United churches have already apologized for their roles in helping run the institutions.

Tk'emlúps te Secwepemc Chief Rosanne Casimir said in a statement Thursday that it would be "deeply meaningful" to welcome Pope Francis to the First Nation, and invited him to meet with survivors upon his visit.

"It'd be a historic moment for Kamloops Residential Indian School Survivors and for our community who continues to navigate the impacts following the horrific confirmation of the missing children," Casimir said in part.

She also pushed for the Catholic Church and its entities to implement the TRC's recommendations and for the Pope to recognize the treatment of Indigenous people who were forced to attend these institutions as genocide.

"For the Pope to come to Canada without real action, with simply the objective of reconciliation, glosses over and ignores this hard truth. Though some may wish for reconciliation, Tk̓emlúps te Secwépemc is still saddled with the truth of identifying hundreds of child victims from the Kamloops Indian Residential School," Casimi said.

Earlier in the year, it was reported that ground-penetrating radar had detected at least 215 unmarked graves near the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in B.C. Numerous other Indigenous communities have since reported finding unmarked graves at former residential school sites with the same technology.

Lynne Groulx, CEO of the Native Women's Association of Canada, told that she is "cautiously optimistic" that the Pope will make good on his word and follow through with this visit to Canada.

"We are optimistic that the Pope will finally deliver the long-overdue apology for the role the Catholic church played in the devastating experiment of assimilation and genocide that was conducted over more than a century at Canada’s Indian Residential Schools," Groulx said in an emailed statement Wednesday.

"NWAC has publicly called, on many occasions, for this visit and for this apology. If they happen, they will be important steps toward reconciliation."

Groulx told CTV News Channel that it would also be significant if the Pope used the word "genocide" in any potential apology.

"It's important that it really be a true acknowledgement," she said.

Groulx says the Pope's visit to Canada is well overdue and likely wouldn't have happened without the "intense amount of pressure" from First Nations.

"But here we are today talking about it finally," she said.

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) said in a statement Wednesday that a visit from Pope Francis is not enough for reconciliation, and that a "formal apology and restitution [for] the harm done to our children is key to this process."

"Reconciliation starts with recognizing the past, but it doesn’t end there — it is also about forging a path forward together," NCTR Executive Director Stephanie Scott said in the statement.

"As well, continued co-operation to expedite residential school records to the NCTR is one of the first steps for the Catholic Church to take towards Reconciliation," she added.

Assembly of First Nations (AFN) Chief Roseanne Archibald said on social media that she will welcome Pope Francis upon arriving in Canada to "issue a long overdue apology to survivors and descendants," but added that the Catholic Church must also do more for Indigenous people.

"I continue to ask that the Catholic Church be accountable for their role in the forced assimilation and #genocide of our children, families and Nations. Someone must be criminally charged. Further that the reparations be made to First Nations," Archibald said in a series of tweets.

"I believe that we must walk the #HealingPathForward together," she added.

In response to the Vatican's announcement on Wednesday, Canada's Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Marc Miller said he expected from the pontiff "full recognition of the harm caused to the Indigenous peoples."

"In the grand scheme of what we call reconciliation for Indigenous peoples, that full recognition is something that is long awaited for from the Holy Father himself," Miller said.

With files from The Canadian Press and The Associated Press


The Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program has a hotline to help residential school survivors and their relatives suffering trauma invoked by the recall of past abuse. The number is 1-866-925-4419.