Assembly of First Nations member Rosanne Casimiro Ttes talks to journalists outside St. Peter s Square at the end of a meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican, Thursday, March 31, 2022. AP
Francis met privately for two hours with the representatives of the Assembly of First Nations, following his meetings earlier in the week with delegations from the Metis and Inuit communities of Canada.
"I feel the pope and the church have expressed a sentiment of working toward reconciliation," said Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty of the Creen Nation, after the audience.
The trip was years in the making but gained momentum last year after the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves outside some of the residential schools.
More than 150,000 native children in Canada were forced to attend state-funded Christian schools from the 19th century until the 1970s in an effort to isolate them from the influence of their homes and culture. The aim was to Christianize and assimilate them into mainstream society, which previous Canadian governments considered superior.
Even before the grave sites were discovered, Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission specifically called for a papal apology to be delivered on Canadian soil for the church's role in the abuses against the Indigenous.
Francis has committed to traveling to Canada, though no date for such a visit has been announced.
The Vatican said Thursday's meeting was held "in a climate of listening and closeness'' and would be followed by Francis' audience with all three groups on Friday, when he is to deliver a public address.
"If you were to ask me am I optimistic leaving our discussion with the Holy Father, I am,'' said Phil Fontaine, who was national chief of the Assembly of First Nations in 2009 when he led an Indigenous delegation to meet with Pope Benedict XVI.
At the time, Benedict only expressed his "sorrow at the anguish caused by the deplorable conduct of some members of the church.'' But he did not apologize.
"It's 2022, I'm back, for another shot at convincing Pope Francis to apologize," Fontaine told reporters in St. Peter's Square, wearing a feathered headdress. "A full apology for all that he heard today and probably heard from the Metis and Inuit delegations about the horrible experience of too many of our people that attended residential schools.''
"Our preference is for the Holy Father to come to Canada and apologize on Canadian soil, and do it on one of our territories," he added. "That is our hope and wish and we made that very clear to the Holy Father.''