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Gerald Antoine, Phil Fontaine, Willie Littlechild and Fred Kelly talk to the media in St. Peter's Square after Members of the Assembly of First Nations met with Pope Francis at the Vatican on March 31.Fabrizio Troccoli/The Globe and Mail

Willie Littlechild never got to mark his birthday when he was a child attending residential school in Alberta. But on his 78th birthday, Chief Littlechild was in the Vatican to hear Pope Francis apologize to Indigenous people for the abuses they suffered in the Catholic-run schools.

Chief Littlechild, a lawyer and former parliamentarian, was one of three commissioners of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The commission examined the damaging effects of residential schools in Canada before issuing a final report in 2015 that made 94 calls to action, including that the Pope issue an apology to survivors, families and Indigenous communities. The TRC wanted that apology to happen in Canada within a year of its report.

On Friday, seven years after the TRC’s call, Pope Francis said that he was “very sorry” and apologized for the “deplorable conduct of those members of the Catholic Church,” while he asked for God’s forgiveness.

Pope Francis apologizes to Indigenous delegation for residential school abuse in Canada

Full text of Pope Francis’s apology for residential schools

“From not being able to have a birthday celebration in residential school, to having something I hoped for and prayed for, to help my fellow survivors who wanted to hear those three words ‘I am sorry,’ and with His Holiness going beyond that, by saying ‘I am very sorry,’ was really, really emotional to us,” Chief Littlechild said during an interview in Rome.

Chief Littlechild, along with former Manitoba judge Murray Sinclair and former journalist Marie Wilson, spent six years documenting abuses at residential schools as commissioners of the TRC. They reported on how the government-funded, church-run institutions were used as a tool of assimilation by the Canadian state and churches, and found that thousands of children had suffered physical and sexual abuse. About 7,000 people spoke to the TRC and many survivors are no longer alive.

The commission had called for a papal apology similar to the one issued in 2021 to Irish victims of abuse, and that it be delivered in Canada. Ms. Wilson said that the Irish apology was multi-layered and recognized the breadth, scope and legacy of the harms done.

Chief Wilton Littlechild and spiritual advisor Fred Kelly blessed items and shared sacred teachings in a ceremony prior to their private meeting with Pope FrancisWillow Fiddler/The Globe and Mail

The Pope’s apology on Friday was an incredibly significant day for those who were present, she said. “We cannot diminish the importance of the moment.”

But the former commissioner emphasized that much more needs to happen: A papal apology not only needs to take place in Canada, but it needs to “be done with stronger words.”

“When you say you’re sorry for some members of the Catholic Church, these were not just some members,” Ms. Wilson said.

“They were leaders of the Catholic Church and they had a boss. And the boss was the Pope at the time. There was nothing in there about being sorry for the lack of oversight or, indeed, the comfortable negligence of paying attention to what was going on in the schools and setting a standard.”

Mr. Sinclair, who chaired the TRC, told The Globe and Mail that the amount of effort required by Indigenous people to spur Canadian bishops and the Pope to apologize diminished the meaningfulness of the gesture. He said survivors almost felt like they were “squeezing it out of him.” Still, he knows the moment means a lot.

“I don’t want to take away from that,” he said. “I am hopeful that when he comes to Canada, that a gathering of all the survivors who are still alive will be arranged so that they can all be present in one place. … I think that bringing survivors together is really quite important, so that they can hear it and they can share it and they can then participate in healing ceremonies at that time.”

With a report from Tavia Grant in Rome

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