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Survivors will each decide for themselves whether to accept Pope's apology, says Phil FontaineThe Pope’s apology was “a special moment” in history, says Phil Fontaine, but it will be up to each individual residential school survivor to decide whether to accept it.

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'It was an important statement, and it was a special moment in our history,' says former AFN national chief

CBC Radio(Gregorio Borgia/The Associated Press)7:00Survivors will each decide for themselves whether to accept Pope's apology, says Phil Fontaine

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

The Pope's apology was "a special moment" in history, according to Phil Fontaine, but he says it will be up to each individual residential school survivor to decide whether it went far enough.

On Friday, Pope Francis apologized for the conduct of some members of the Roman Catholic Church in Canada's residential school system.

Speaking to First Nations, Inuit and Métis delegates from Canada at the Vatican, Francis said he felt "sorrow and shame for the role that a number of Catholics, particularly those with educational responsibilities, have had in all these things that wounded you, and the abuses you suffered and the lack of respect shown for your identity, your culture and even your spiritual values."

"For the deplorable conduct of these members of the Catholic Church, I ask for God's forgiveness and I want to say to you with all my heart, I am very sorry. And I join my brothers, the Canadian bishops, in asking your pardon," he said.

Between the 1870s and the 1990s, Canada's federal government took more than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children from their families and forced them to attend residential schools designed to assimilate them by stripping them of their own languages and cultures. More than 60 per cent of the schools were run by the Catholic Church.

Fontaine, a residential school survivor and former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, was on hand for the apology. Here is part of his conversation with As It Happenshost Carol Off. 

Mr. Fontaine, you have been seeking an apology for 40 years now. Do you feel that you got one today?

Well, quite clearly. The words we heard from Pope Francis, "I am very sorry," is an apology. 

That's how it was received by the strong contingent of Indigenous representatives from every part of the country. And it was an important statement, and it was a special moment in our history — particularly with respect to our relationship with the Catholic Church.

You said earlier today that you were surprised. You weren't necessarily expecting this today.

I was surprised, but deep down, I was hopeful that we would hear a substantial statement from Pope Francis, and that's what we received. It's a special moment. I can handle surprises like the one we had today.

WATCH | Pope Francis apologizes to Indigenous delegates for 'deplorable' abuses at residential schools

'I am very sorry': Pope Francis apologizes for abuses at residential schools

2 days agoDuration 13:41Saying he was 'deeply grieved by the stories of the suffering' experienced in residential schools, Pope Francis apologized to Indigenous delegates at a public audience at the Vatican.13:41

As some have already pointed out, the apology fell short of taking full responsibility. Pope Francis said he was sorry for the "deplorable conduct" of some members of the Catholic Church.

But he didn't say he was sorry for the role the church played in creating residential schools, for instance, or permitting the abuse that happened there, and for decades of covering it up afterwards. Can you have an apology that does not acknowledge those things?

People shouldn't forget that Pope Francis is the head of the Catholic Church, and when he speaks, he's speaking for the church.

So we can quibble with the statement, but it was a powerful statement. And he made it clear to us that when he visits Canada this summer, he will expand on that statement.

He did talk about a number of Catholics who committed the abuses. He did not talk about the institution of the church and the role that it played. Do you see that there's a difference there, or does it matter?

At this stage, an apology is what we were looking for, and in my view — and in the opinion of many, many others that were present there — this was the apology. 

Those words will make it possible for a number of people, survivors, to begin their journey of healing and reconciliation.

One can't impose this apology on any individual. This will be up to each individual and each individual survivor to determine whether the words spoken today are good enough for them.

And in the hours since this has happened, have you been hearing from people back home? And are they telling you that it's good enough for them?

I've heard from so many people. They're ecstatic. They're happy. They're just very pleased that we were able to accomplish this moment today.

But I also didn't expect that there would be a 100 per cent support for whatever we were able to achieve today. You know, the apology could have been a paragraph long or three or four or an entire page, [and] it wouldn't have satisfied everyone. And that's fine. That's fine. That's up to each individual to determine for themselves whether they wish to accept whatever is presented to them.

But in my view, the words we heard today will be sufficient for a good number of survivors that wish to begin a journey of true healing and reconciliation.

  • Read Pope Francis's full remarks, apology for abuses by some Catholic Church members in residential schools

What was the conversation you had with the Pope when you met with him this week?

I didn't have a one-on-one. We had a delegation that presented our issues to the Pope. And we had four distinct subject areas, and I was in one of those areas. And so I had an opportunity to be on my feet and speak directly to the Holy Father.

And we prepared a leave-behind document that we hope will educate and inform the Holy Father and Vatican officials and church officials so that when he comes to Canada in the summer, he will be well-prepared to speak more expansively on the issue he addressed today.

And what would you like him to expand on when he comes to Canada? 

How you expand on that statement will be something that they determine. But in my opinion, I think we have to figure out what process we want to engage in with the Catholic Church to address these issues — whether we're talking about artifacts at the Vatican Museum, whether we are talking about unmarked graves, access to school records and land-related issues, [or] reparations, once we figure out what we mean by reparations. 

Those are matters that have to be addressed in a very systematic, well co-ordinated and organized way. And we can't leave that up to the church to determine the resolution of those issues. We want to be part of that process and bring about a fair and just resolution.

Watch: Indigenous delegates react to Pope Francis's apology for 'deplorable' abuses at residential schools:

Indigenous delegates react to Pope Francis's apology for 'deplorable' abuses at residential schools

2 days agoDuration 3:35In order: Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, Métis National Council President Cassidy Caron, Dene Nation Delegation Lead Chief Gerald Antoine and Phil Fontaine, the former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, share their reactions to Pope Francis's apology for the conduct of some members of the Catholic Church in Canada's residential school system.The Vatican holds billions in assets. Residential school survivors say the Pope should step up on compensation
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