KAMLOOPS, B.C. –
During his historic trip to Canada, Pope Francis will visit several significant sites, but there are other important locations being omitted such as the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.
Last year, just steps away from the shuttered institution, a shocking discovery horrified the country. At least 200 suspected unmarked graves, potentially belonging to Indigenous children, were found. The site is now considered sacred with few allowed to see it, but a rare invitation was extended to the Pope.
“I did offer Pope Francis an invitation as I thought it was extremely important for him to come here, knowing that it was also ground zero of the initial findings of unmarked graves,” Kúkpi7 Rosanne Casimir told CTV National News.
Casimir is Chief of Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc. The First Nation was thrust onto the international stage last May after ground-penetrating radar revealed dozens of potential burials. It’s widely believed they contain the remains of young students who were forced to attend the B.C. institution before it closed in the 1978.
Along with several other First Nations leaders, Casimir travelled to Rome earlier this year. While there, she hand-delivered her invite to the Pope, asking him to come to her community.
“I personally gave him the invite because it meant so much to me, my community and our residential school survivors,” Casimir said. “I really thought it was important that he not miss an opportunity to visit a First Nation here on Turtle Island that has been impacted by unmarked graves.”
In late May, the Holy See Press Office announced the pontiff’s intent to travel to Canada; however, Kamloops was not one of the scheduled destinations.
Despite initial disappointment, Casimir says she now welcomes the visit no matter where it is, and her “hope is to hear a true meaningful apology” for not only residential school survivors but all Indigenous people.
While no specific reasons have been given as to why Kamloops was omitted from Pope Francis’s tour, his official Papal Visit Team pointed to his health and physical limitations as a reason.
Pope Francis is said to suffer from a chronic nerve condition called sciatica, which causes pain that radiates along the path of the sciatic nerve.
In an emailed statement, the Papal Visit Team said that “given [his] advanced age  and physical limitations” only the “three hub communities” of Edmonton, Quebec City and Iqaluit were chosen.
The team also added that they “recognize the importance and significance of every former residential school site” and are fully committed to working with Indigenous communities across the country to support healing and reconciliation”
“Some were upset he is not visiting our nation, but we will have Cowessess reps traveling to Edmonton,” Chief Cadmus Delorme of Cowessess First Nation told CTV National News.
Delorme’s Nation is also not a place where the Pope will stop. With that, the pontiff will not see where 751 unmarked graves were found last June at the site of the former Marieval Indian Residential School, about 140 kilometres east of Regina.
While only a small delegation from Cowessess First Nation will travel to see the Pope, Delorme says there will be special events in community, including healing ceremonies, to mark the event.
“We will be closely following the visit to make sure any apology from the Pope is capturing what Indigenous people, residential schools survivors went through mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually,” he said.
Back in Kamloops, Diena Jules, a Tk’emlúps elder, says she, too, will be closely following the Pope’s visit.
“It has been really difficult for the Catholic church to accept responsibility for what they have done, and I think with this papal visit it is slowly going in the right direction towards reconciliation,” she told CTV National News.
At the age of 7, Jules was not only forced to attend the Kamloops institution but she says she was verbally and physically abused while there.
“There was so much hurt,” she said. “I now suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder from my experiences within the residential school system.”
Along with an apology, Jules wants meaningful action from the Pope and the Catholic Church, including rescinding Doctrine of Discovery and returning all residential school records.
“Words are just words, anybody can say them,” she said. “I want to see a real plan of action that is in line with and focused on reconciliation.”
Jules, along with other residential school survivors, will travel from Tk’emlúps to Edmonton to partake in the papal visit. It’s a journey she hopes will bring further healing.
If you are a former residential school survivor in distress, or have been affected by the residential school system and need help, you can contact the 24-hour Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419
Additional mental-health support and resources for Indigenous people are available here.
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