Harper raises residential schools commission during papal visit: PMO

VATICAN CITY, Italy — Prime Minister Stephen Harper raised the troubling findings of the residential schools commission with Pope Francis at the Vatican Thursday, but appeared to have stopped short of inviting him to Canada to apologize.

Instead, Harper referred to letter sent earlier in the week to the Vatican by his aboriginal affairs minister that merely informed the Holy See of the commission.

“Prime Minister Harper also drew attention to the letter sent by Minister (Bernard) Valcourt to the Holy See regarding the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” Harper’s office said without elaborating.

Harper’s spokesman did not respond to a request for clarification.

A separate readout from the Vatican did not mention the residential schools issue among the topics discussed.

Harper instead choose to pursue the theme that has dominated six-day trip to Europe – his condemnation of Russian president Vladimir Putin, who was at the Vatican on Wednesday for his private audience with Francis.

Harper went 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.

“That would be really symbolic for him to pressure the Pope to formally apologize for the role of the Catholic Church,” Bellegarde said in an interview this week. “It would be huge if they do get that apology directly from the Pope.”

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 at the Vatican on Thursday, the final day of his six-country European tour.

The meeting came exactly seven years after the prime minister issued his own apology in the House of Commons to residential school survivors.

But Canadian officials said that because Putin visited Francis the 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,” an official said on the condition of anonymity.

The U.S. called on the to Vatican this week to step up its concern about Ukraine in Francis’ meeting with Putin. It was the Russian leader’s second meeting with Francis since 2013.

A Vatican spokesperson said the Ukraine and Middle East crises were big topics of discussion, but the question of assigning blame to Russia did not arise.

Harper was at the Vatican for slightly less than an hour and was accompanied by his wife, Laureen, Defence Minister Jason Kenney, three Conservative MPs and several staffers.

Harper was visible to reporters only briefly on three occasions when short, frenetic photo ops took place.

He stood shoulder to shoulder and was smiling on one occasion, but the prime minister did not speak nor did he take questions from Canadian media travelling with them on the final day of his travel

There was another significant development at the Vatican the day before Harper arrived.

Francis announced the creation of a tribunal to investigate bishops who have covered up sexual abuse committed by priests.

The topic appeared to dovetail with the findings of the Canadian commission into residential schools.

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

-with files from Kristy Kirkup in Ottawa

Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press