OTTAWA – An upcoming visit by Indigenous leaders to meet Pope Francis at the Vatican has been officially postponed.

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Leaders of three national Indigenous organizations that were set to send delegates as well as the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops announced the decision this afternoon.

News that the upcoming visit could be called off was sparked earlier in the day by the National Assembly of the Nation’s head of state, Roseanne Archibald, who cited concerns about the new Omicron version of COVID-19.

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The groups met today to discuss the matter, and issued a joint statement saying they decided to postpone “due to the uncertainty surrounding international travel and the potential health risks”.

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He says his visit to meet the pope will be rescheduled “in 2022 at the earliest opportunity”.

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The statement said the decision to postpone was a “heartbreaking one”, but among his concerns were risks to the elderly who would travel and those who live in remote communities.

Catholic bishops announced in June that national indigenous organizations, including the First Nations Assembly, would send a delegation to meet Pope Francis.

The visit was planned in the hope that the Pope would in return visit Canada and apologize for the Catholic Church’s role in the operation of the residential school system.

“The health and well-being of our representatives, their families and communities is of paramount importance to us and we will not harm anyone if we can help it,” Archibald said earlier on Tuesday.

She said she looked forward to hearing from the pope on a visit to Canada, which the Vatican said in October was ready to do.

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Mark Miller described the postponement as disappointing, but said the safety of participants is the “number 1 priority”.

He said there would still be an opportunity to speak with the Pope.

“Obviously, this is unfortunate because I think the Holy Father needs to hear directly from advocates and that opportunity will not present itself until later,” he said.

Miller said the federal government was not organizing or leading the trip, but Ottawa is providing some assistance to the delegation, and it will continue.

Residential school survivors and their families have demanded a papal apology for abuses committed against Indigenous children forced to attend residential schools, which were funded by the federal government but run by churches including the Catholic Church. it was done.

The Pope’s apology was listed as one of 94 calls to action in the final report of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015, but remains unfinished.

A push for the Pope to apologize has re-emerged this year, given the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves at former sites of residential schools in British Columbia and Saskatchewan.

In his address to AFN chiefs on Tuesday, Archibald said he has called on the Catholic Church to undertake various repairs, including returning the diocese’s lands and assets to the First Nations on which they are located.

She also believes the church needs to provide more funding for the long-term healing initiative that exceeds the $30 million the bishops’ conference promised it would fundraise earlier in the fall.

Archibald says that he also stated that the Pope repealed the 1493 Doctrine of Discovery, intended to justify European explorers’ claims to the land, and replaced it with a decree that “indigenous peoples and cultures are valuable , deserves and should be treated with respect and honour.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on December 7, 2021.

—With files from Kelly Geraldine Malone in Winnipeg and Mia Rabson in Ottawa