VATICAN CITY, Italy — Prime Minister Stephen Harper was planning to raise Russia’s aggression in Ukraine in his meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican today.

But government officials were unable to tell The Canadian Press whether Harper would raise the residential schools issue with the Pope.

Harper goes into the meeting facing calls to use the occasion to secure a papal apology for the church’s role in Canada’s residential school legacy.

Perry Bellegarde, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, says the meeting will be a “prime opportunity” for the prime minister to raise the issue.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which spoke to thousands of residential school students and documented their experiences, issued 94 recommendations last week that included a call for a papal apology on Canadian soil.

Bellegarde says a directly apology from the Pope “would be huge” and help bring closure to those who suffered atrocities and abuses at the schools, many of which were run by the Roman Catholic Church.

In April 2009, then-AFN national chief Phil Fontaine along with four aboriginal leaders and a delegation from Canada’s Catholic Church had an audience with Pope Benedict in Rome, which produced a communique of sympathy from the Vatican.

Harper was greeted by Pope Francis midmorning today at the Vatican.

Today’s meeting comes exactly seven years after the prime minister issued his own apology in the House of Commons to school survivors.

But officials said that because Russian President Vladimir Putin visited the Pope a day before Harper, the prime minister was planning to raise the topic.

Harper “will raise concern over Russia’s occupation of Ukraine and the escalation of violence,” the official said on the condition of anonymity.

Harper was also planning to invite the Pope to Canada for the 2017 celebrations of Canada’s 150th birthday.


The Canadian Press