When Pope Francis visits Canada next week, Ghislain Picard says he hopes the needs of residential school survivors will be the top priority for the head of the Roman Catholic Church. The pope is expected to apologize once more for the role members of the church played in abuses committed against Indigenous children at the forced-assimilation institutions, which operated across Canada for decades beginning in the late 1800s.
The discoveries of unmarked graves at several former residential school sites over the past year make the pope’s trip that much more critical, said Picard, the Quebec-Labrador regional chief at the Assembly of First Nations (AFN). “There are thousands of suspected [unmarked grave] sites,” he told Al Jazeera. “So I think the pope’s visit has taken on even more importance.”
In Quebec, a predominantly French-speaking and Catholic province that will be the second stop on the pope’s July 24-29 tour, the visit also presents an opportunity to increase awareness of the horrors of residential schools and dispel long-held myths, Picard said.
For decades, some have argued the residential school system in Quebec – which has its own distinct history of forced British rule and Catholic Church dominance over public life – was not “as bad” as in the rest of the country.