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An Indigenous youth delegate met with the pope. Here's what she wants him to do next

Pope Francis stands during the weekly general audience on March 30 at the Vatican.
Andreas Solaro
AFP via Getty Images
Pope Francis stands during the weekly general audience on March 30 at the Vatican.

Updated April 10, 2022 at 11:46 AM ET

Taylor Behn-Tsakoza is only 26, and she got Pope Francis to apologize to her.

She is a youth delegate with the Assembly of First Nations, an advocacy organization that represents First Nations citizens. She and other members of a delegation from the organization shared stories with the pope about the impact Canada's residential schools had — and continue to have — on their communities.

Then the earthly head of the Catholic Church apologized.

"I was almost right in front of him, and it actually took a second to register that he said, 'I'm sorry' ... because he was speaking in Italian," she said. "Once the translation had come through, I realized it."

And he told them he hoped to visit Canada in late July to deliver the apology again.

Despite the historic — and unexpected — nature of the event, Behn-Tsakoza was not satisfied as the apology was on behalf of members of the Church who committed abuses against Indigenous children. The delegation wanted him to apologize on behalf of the whole Church, she said.

"I'm hopeful that when he comes to Canada, he will take it that step further," Behn-Tsakoza said.

Members of the delegations from the Assembly of First Nations address the media on March 31 after a meeting with Pope Francis.
Vincenzo Pinto / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Members of the delegations from the Assembly of First Nations address the media on March 31 after a meeting with Pope Francis.

A member of Fort Nelson First Nation in British Columbia, she has seen the impact of the residential schools in her own family.

Her aunts and uncles attended Lower Post residential school on the border between British Columbia and Yukon before it closed in 1975. Now, Behn-Tsakoza mourns the loss of language and traditions.

"There's a lot that wasn't shared with me just because my grandparents were terrified like what if the church was going to come back or the [Royal Canadian Mounted Police] was going to come back and get us," she told APTN News before meeting the pope.

For more than 100 years, Indigenous children in Canada — like those in Behn-Tsakoza's family — were taken from their communities and forced to attend residential schools, then assimilated into Western, Christian civilization. The Catholic Church ran many of these residential schools, including Lower Post.

Many of these children suffered abuses there, including physical and sexual assaults. Recently, the remains of hundreds of children have been discovered at some of these schools.

Behn-Tsakoza advocates for the Vatican returning stolen artifacts and digitizing records. She also wants Pope Francis to renounce and rescind the Doctrine of Discovery, which was used to back Christian authority over non-Christian people.

There could be a similar reckoning in the United States too, where boarding schools existed. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland has confirmed that a report of her department's investigation into the federal government's oversight of these schools will come out in April, but didn't specify a date.

Behn-Tsakoza remains hopeful for the future of the Indigenous community. And a papal visit to Canada would be meaningful to survivors of residential schools and their children, she said.

According to Behn-Tsakoza, the delegation requested in the March 31 meeting that Pope Francis visit the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia, which the Catholic Church also operated. A mass grave containing the remains of 215 children was reported there last year.

The delegation made the visit to Rome and requested this because they want him to see and understand the effect that residential schools have had on Indigenous children and their families.

"This trip was for them," she said.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Taylor Hutchison

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