By Andrew Ehrkamp
News Editor

A former Truth and Reconciliation commissioner says an apology from Pope Francis would be a major step towards forgiveness for the Catholic Church for its role in Canada’s residential school system.

“It will give survivors that expression of regret. They want the Pope to say ‘I’m sorry’. For some it will be enough, for others we’ll find out,” said Willie Littlechild, himself a survivor of three residential schools, who was elected Grand Chief of the 41-member Confederacy of Treaty Six Nations four months ago.

“I hope it will happen. It gives people the opportunity to forgive, and that’s important too. Many survivors will feel a sense of justice and reconciliation.”

Littlechild, a prominent Alberta lawyer and activist who was born on the Ermineskin First Nation south of Edmonton, said he’s happy Prime Minister Justin Trudeau raised the issue with the Holy Father.

Trudeau met with Pope Francis on May 29 and encouraged the Holy Father to come to Canada to apologize for the abuse suffered in government residential schools, many of which were operated by Catholic entities. In Alberta, 15 of the residential schools were operated on behalf of the government by Catholics.

The City of Edmonton is marking the second anniversary of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission with a week of events culminating on June 3 with a Blanket Exercise, an interactive learning activity at the Alberta Legislature grounds. Up to 500 people are expected to attend.

A papal apology on Canadian soil was among the 94 recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to address the harms and trauma of residential schools.

Littlechild noted that other churches have apologized for their role in residential schools, and that the Catholic Church has expressed regret, but has not apologized from the highest level – the papacy.

Archbishop Richard Smith said the Holy Father is deeply affected by the history of residential school abuse and the suffering of First Nations people, and that Canada’s bishops have raised the issues brought forward by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“Just to see the look on his face as we recounted some of the challenges, he’s a clearly a man with a very, very serious pastoral heart,” Smith said after meeting with reporters for his annual media breakfast.

“The pain was just etched on his face as he listened to the stories, so we know we can trust Pope Francis to do what is right and what is good and take very seriously the request that has come from the government and the TRC process. And we’ll see.”

Archbishop Smith noted that he has personally visited the Alexis First Nation and the Paul First Nation within the last year and the Archdiocese has also established its own Office of Aboriginal Relations.

The aboriginal relations coordinator, Gary Gagnon, acts as an ambassador and representative of Archbishop Smith among the large Aboriginal community in the Archdiocese of Edmonton. Gagnon was born in St. Albert and grew up in a strong Metis family.

Gagnon is also a cultural facilitator at Edmonton Catholic Schools.