'Missed opportunity': Pope will skip B.C. on reconciliation trip to Canada

Pope Francis is coming to Canada this summer on a historic 5-day visit focused on reconciliation. Missing from his itinerary, however, is B.C. As Catherine Urquhart reports, Indigenous leaders say it's a missed opportunity.

Warning: This story deals with disturbing subject matter that may upset and trigger some readers. Discretion is advised.

First Nations leaders in British Columbia say they’re disappointed Pope Francis won’t visit them in their home territories on his reconciliation pilgrimage to Canada this summer.

The Holy Father’s itinerary, released Friday morning, includes stops in Edmonton, Quebec City and Iqaluit between July 24 and 29, although specific sites within those cities have not been confirmed.

“I’m still holding onto a bit of hope that he may change his mind,” said Kúkpi7 Rosanne Casimir.

“I know that the residential school here in Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc has impacted not only our community, but 203 First Nations across British Columbia. To me, that is has a very large impact.”

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Casimir’s nation in Kamloops has been called “ground zero” for a national reckoning on the violent truth of Canada’s colonization. It is considered by many to be a catalyst for several healing initiatives now underway, including the Pope’s visit to Turtle Island — what settlers call North America.

Nearly a year ago, Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc revealed the presence of 215 unmarked burial sites at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, sending shockwaves of grief and anger across the country.

Casimir invited Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to visit for Canada’s first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation — an invitation he snubbed. During the Indigenous delegation to Rome in March, the chief said she invited Pope Francis to visit this summer, and is now experiencing “a bit of déjà vu.”

“We are 15 minutes — 20 max — from a local airport and we are also the transportation hub in all of British Columbia in Canada,” she told Global News.

“All trade roads comes through Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc, and to me, again, that would be a real missed opportunity for him to not come here.”

According to the Canadian Council of Catholic Bishops, which organized the delegation to Rome, Pope Francis could not respond to all the invitations he received from Indigenous communities. The cities selected are a “base” that will allow participation from all regions of the country.

“We do understand and recognize that Kamloops has had a significant role in really deepening the awareness among Canadian peoples of the residential school legacy and so on,” said Archbishop of Edmonton Richard Smith.

“But what we’re dealing with at the same time, though, is very, very strict limitations that arise from the Pope’s advancing age and his limited mobility.”

Francis, 85, is no longer able to travel by helicopter, be in a car for more than an hour, or stay in a different place every night, the archbishop explained. Between March and April, more than 30 First Nations, Métis and Inuit representatives met him in Rome to ask for a papal apology for the church’s role in residential schools, delivered on Canadian soil, among other steps toward reconciliation.

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Chief Harvey McLeod, whose Upper Nicola nation is south of Kamloops, said he has “mixed emotions” about the Pope’s exclusion of B.C. He too, called it a “missed opportunity,” but said “it is what it is.”

“There’s a lot of people, a lot of our people, that need to see and hear from him directly,” he said. “It would have been really good if he could come and do the blessing himself on the souls that are buried in Tk’emlúps.”

McLeod, a residential school survivor, visited the Vatican seven years ago and said he forgave the Pope for the Catholic Church’s role in Canada’s system of assimilation. In April, however, when the Holy Father apologized for the “deplorable conduct” of some clergy members in the institutions, McLeod said he “cried and cried and cried” because “Little Harvey” needed to hear it.

Rather than focusing on the Pope’s schedule now, McLeod said he will focus on the steps needed for his community to find healing.

Since Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc introduced Le Estcwicwéy̓ — “the missing” — to the world almost a year ago, First Nations across Canada have detected thousands of tiny unmarked burial sites at former residential school grounds using ground-penetrating radar. Many searches are still underway.

According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, countless thousands of Indigenous children were beaten, starved, raped and left to die of disease at the 139 residential schools in Canada. An unknown number of little ones — well into the thousands — never made it home.

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Skipping B.C. is a “total insult” and “total rejection” that denies closure to many survivors and intergenerational survivors, said Kúkpi7 Judy Wilson, executive member of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs.

The pontiff’s apology in Rome was a “half apology,” she added, that didn’t take accountability for the Catholic Church as an organization.

“It’s going to be a lot more triggering and trauma for people to decide, do they travel all the way to Edmonton?” the Neskonlith Indian Band chief said Friday. “Many couldn’t go on the Vatican visit and now, it’s still making it harder for people to have any kind of apology from him on Canadian soil.”

She urged the Pope to “correct” his itinerary, and take a “45-minute flight from Edmonton,” as part of the Vatican’s overall accountability for residential schools.

Smith, who travelled to the Vatican with Indigenous delegates in March and April, said the bishops’ council is still determining how survivors from across the country can participate in the Pope’s pilgrimage. Those decisions will be made with Indigenous leaders, he added.

The itinerary itself is final, he told Global News, but its limitations don’t mean the Pope’s heart does not embrace Indigenous peoples from coast to coast to coast.

“The encounter that the Indigenous had with the Holy Father in Rome, I think, showed everybody very, very clearly the heart that this Pope has for Indigenous peoples,” Smith said.

“This is a man who wants to heal … and I’m convinced wherever the Pope does end up in terms of venues, his words and his gestures will be able to reach across these geographical parameters that have been established by his limited mobility, in order to touch people and advance the healing.”

Members of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (left to right) Don Bolen of Regina, William McGratten of Calgary and Richard Smith of Edmonton wait outside their hotel in Rome to meet Pope Francis with Métis delegates on Mon. March 28, 2022.

Members of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (left to right) Don Bolen of Regina, William McGratten of Calgary and Richard Smith of Edmonton wait outside their hotel in Rome to meet Pope Francis with Métis delegates on Mon. March 28, 2022.

Elizabeth McSheffrey/Global News

Casimir, who is in the midst of planning the one-year anniversary of the unveiling of the Le Estcwicwéy̓, said a visit to B.C. would go a long way in ensuring the papal visit is viewed as meaningful, rather than “performative.”

If he cannot, however, make the arrangements, she said she looks forward to seeing what support is available to bring people from Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc to Edmonton for this “crucial time in history.”

The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line (1-866-925-4419) is available 24 hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience.

© 2022 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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