Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller said Wednesday Pope Francis’s upcoming trip to Canada remains unchanged at the moment, but the pontiff’s health is an “extreme concern.”
Miller’s comments come after the Vatican announced last week the 85-year-old Pope would reschedule an upcoming trip to Africa to avoid interrupting therapy he is undergoing for his knee.
His trip to Congo and South Sudan had been scheduled to take place from July 2 to 7, just weeks before he is set to travel to Canada to deliver a long-awaited apology to Indigenous people for the Catholic Church’s role in running residential schools.
“We’re all systems go in Canada in terms of hosting, effectively, what is a head of state,” Miller said before entering a meeting of the Liberal caucus.
“But obviously his precarious health is of extreme concern.”
An estimated 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend these church-run, government-funded institutions, where physical and sexual abuse, as well as neglect, were rampant.
The final report released in December 2015 from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, which collected testimony from thousands of survivors, called for a papal apology to take place on Canadian soil for the role played by the Catholic Church and its clergy for running these schools.
That request went unheard until earlier this year, when Pope Francis apologized to First Nations, Inuit and Métis delegates who travelled to the Vatican to speak to him about the matter.
Survivors still hope to see him deliver an apology in Canada.
On Wednesday, the National Indian Residential School Circle of Survivors released a suggested text for the apology, which it said it also shared with the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The survivors’ circle said it wants to ensure the Pope’s apology is accepted and in it, he must recognize the church’s wrongdoing and seek forgiveness, while also committing to making changes and offering restitution.
The text calls for the Pope to accept the Catholic Church’s role in “Canada’s assimilation policy,” and acknowledge the many ways Indigenous children and their families suffered under the system, including by burying children in unmarked graves.
Ken Young, a former Assembly of First Nations regional chief and member of the survivors’ circle, says he hopes they and the Canadian bishops group can work together on the wording of an apology, saying he believes the Pope needs to offer one on behalf of the Catholic Church as a whole, and not individual clergy.
In terms of reparation, Young says he believes the church must renounce its Doctrine of Discovery, return land it took back to First Nations as well as the cultural property it holds.
Miller said earlier Wednesday that as far as he’s aware, Pope Francis’s upcoming trip to Edmonton, Quebec City and Iqaluit remains on track.
“There’s no change. Obviously his state of health would perhaps require some accommodation,” the minister said, adding those details will be sorted out with the parties involved.
A spokesman for the papal visit said last week that the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops is in regular touch with the Vatican about the pontiff’s upcoming travel.
Neil MacCarthy has said care has been taken to ensure Pope Francis, who has recently been photographed using a wheelchair, can rest in between events.
On Wednesday, Miller said much of the work left to do is logistics around how survivors, many of whom are elderly, will be able to meet with the Pope and what psychological supports will be in place.
“There’s a lot of work that we need to do to make sure that survivors can properly have that moment with the Pope. And that’s the support that the government will always provide,” Miller said.
—Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press