[S.I.S.I.S. note: The following mainstream news article may contain biased or distorted information and may be missing pertinent facts and/or context. It is provided for reference only.]
OTTAWA (CP) - The country's top native leader has been granted a private audience with the Pope to appeal for an official apology from the Roman Catholic Church for its role in Canada's residential school system.
Phil Fontaine, chief of the Assembly of First Nations, will also be looking for financial compensation when a small delegation from the assembly meets John Paul at the Vatican on Nov. 9. The delegation plans to discuss the healing process for natives who suffered abuse at residential schools run by the Catholic Church, Fontaine said Friday.
"I'm just going to remind the Pope that the Catholic Church was a major contributor to the tragic circumstances our people experienced. And we've paid a terrible price," Fontaine said. "There's an obligation for the church to help us resolve it."
More than 80 residential schools were established for native children across Canada in the 1930s and most were operated by churches. Children were taken, often forcibly, from their communities and placed in the schools, where they were usually given new names and forbidden to speak their native language. Hundreds of children suffered emotional, physical and sexual abuse.
The horrifying conditions at some of the training facilities were exposed in the early 1990s - less than a decade after the system was scrapped - when former students went public with heart-breaking accounts of their childhoods at the schools.
One of the first to break the silence was Fontaine, who told of the sexual abuse he endured at a Roman Catholic residential school in Manitoba, where he spent 10 years.
Now, Fontaine said he is seeking an apology such as the one the Vatican recently offered to the Jewish community for the church's failure to denounce the Holocaust. He said he wants some kind of statement of responsibility issued directly from the Vatican.
"They apologized to the Jews. It is not dissimilar," he said.
The Assembly of First Nations also wants a commitment from the Pope that the church will co-operate with compensation packages for former students who suffered abuse at the schools. Ottawa and a number of churches currently face at least 1,000 lawsuits from former school residents.
Natives in British Columbia alone have estimated the cost of their claims at up to $8 billion.
Ottawa has talked vaguely about resolving the claims through an alternative process. Fontaine has said he would like to keep the cases out of the courts if possible.
"It doesn't have to go before the courts as long as there's a willingness on the side of the church to resolve this," he said.