The leaders of three Canadian Indigenous groups announced Tuesday that they have put a trip to the Vatican on hold due to concerns over the spread of the omicron variant of COVID-19.
A joint statement was made by the First Nations, Metis and Inuit leaders and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) that the Dec. 17 visit was postponed due to the "uncertainty and potential health risks surrounding international travel amid the recent spread of the omicron variant."
The CCCB said the decision was a "heartbreaking one," as the trip would have seen Aboriginal representatives have an audience with Pope Francis. They hoped to encourage the Pope to come to Canada and apologize for the Catholic Church's historical role in the infamous Canadian Indian residential schools system.
"[The] Canadian Bishops, Assembly of First Nations, Métis National Council, and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami have jointly decided to reschedule a delegation to the Vatican in December 2021 to the earliest opportunity in 2022," the CCCB said in a statement.
"The health and well-being of our delegates, their families and communities is paramount to us, and we will not put anyone in harm's way if we can help it," Assembly of First Nations National Chief RoseAnne Archibald said at a press conference earlier Tuesday.
The Church has apologized for running about 60% of the residential schools. Over 150,000 children were taken from their families and forced to attend the schools, which numbered 139 across the country. The plan was to drum Indigenous culture out of the young.
The first school opened in the 1820s, and it is estimated that before the last one closed in the early 1990s, about 4,000 children died of disease and maltreatment. Some were buried at the schools and their parents were never told of the death of their children.
This past summer, three Indigenous groups located more than a thousand unmarked graves at three former school sites, triggering renewed calls for the Pope to apologize. The Catholic Church has already done so, but Indigenous leaders want the apology to come from Pope Francis and for him to deliver it on Canadian soil.