Warning: This story contains distressing details
The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) is calling on the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) to include a Saskatchewan residential school gravesite in the July papal visit.
FSIN Chief Bobby Cameron said in a news release Tuesday that the Pope owes every survivor, family and community affected by Catholic-operated residential schools an apology on their own Treaty territory.
"The Pope needs to visit one of our First Nations in Saskatchewan to witness for himself the reality we are facing today and the work our First Nations are conducting in finding the unmarked graves of hundreds of our children," Cameron said in the release.
"Pope Francis and the Church must bear witness to the devastation brought on by the Church in our Treaty territory,"
Saskatchewan had 22 residential schools, with tens of thousands of First Nations children forced to attend. FSIN said in its news release that at least half of those schools were run by the Catholic Church, "who severely sexually, physically, and mentally abused the victims that were forced to attend."
"This damage also continued in the Indian Day School regime, where the Church continued to abuse and mistreat the children and their communities," the FSIN news release said.
"The Catholic religion continues to be practised by some First Nations in Saskatchewan and the Pope, as the leader of that Church, needs to be accountable to his membership."
Pope Francis is expected to visit Quebec City, Edmonton and Iqaluit during a late July trip to Canada.
Marie-Anne Daywalker-Pelletier, the chief of the Okanese First Nation, said that many First Nations communities are still suffering immensely from the intergenerational traumas "created by the harms committed within the walls of these schools."
Daywalker-Pelletier was part of a recent First Nations delegation from Canada that met Pope Francis at the Vatican. She presented him with baby moccasins in return of a promise for him to return them to the steps of a residential school in her region.
"We welcome Pope Francis to walk within the same walls of the institutions that committed genocide against us through the theft and abuses of our children," Daywalker-Pelletier said in the news release.
"The front steps of the Muskowekwan Indian Residential School would be an ideal location for Pope Francis to place those baby moccasins in memory of our children that will never return home and for the ones who came home changed forever."
Thirty-five potential unmarked graves were discovered at the Muskowekwan school site in 2021.
In a statement to CBC News, the CCCB said Monday it is committed to working closely with Indigenous leaders and communities to ensure the upcoming papal visit is a "significant milestone on the healing and reconciliation journey."
The CCCB said that when Pope Francis addressed Canadian bishops at the Vatican, he encouraged them to work with Indigenous partners on a "renewed, fruitful path, where encounters and shared projects will be of great help."
There are more than 100,000 residential school survivors and intergenerational survivors in Saskatchewan.
Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for survivors and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419. A Saskatchewan-based line is now available by calling 306-522-7494.