Trudeau urges Pope to return Indigenous items held in the Vatican’s collection

By Tavia Grant, posted June 17, 2024

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau urged Pope Francis on Friday to escalate reconciliation efforts with Indigenous peoples in Canada by returning cultural items stowed away in the Vatican’s extensive collection of artifacts.

In social media posts on Instagram, Facebook and X, Mr. Trudeau said he thanked the Pope for reconciliation efforts so far, and said he is advocating for the next step – returning cultural belongings to First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples in Canada. The Prime Minister had an audience with the Pope during a G7 summit in Apulia, Italy.

Mr. Trudeau’s comments follow a Globe and Mail investigation published in March which found that, despite several public commitments from the Catholic Church about returning such items, little progress has been made.

The public nature of Mr. Trudeau’s comments is significant, said Cody Groat, assistant professor of history and Indigenous studies at Western University. “The fact that Justin Trudeau made such a prominent statement on social media about this specific topic, I think will be a turning point in some ways.”

This will likely mean encouraging stronger diplomatic relations on this file with Vatican officials, said Prof. Groat, who is Mohawk and a band member of Six Nations of the Grand River.

The next step, he said, is boosting transparency on what the Vatican actually holds. “We can’t just repatriate every single item right away to the home communities, because we don’t know the culture or ceremony that needs to be associated with these ancestral items. So simply knowing what exists, having a transparent inventory of the Vatican collection, is necessary to start developing and working on that ceremony,” before returning these items closer to home communities, he said.

The Vatican has not disclosed the extent of its holdings of cultural items. In 2022, it briefly displayed some examples of its collection in its ethnological museum to visiting Indigenous delegates. Among them were carved face masks from Canada’s West Coast, embroidered leather gloves of Cree origin, a colourful Gwich’in baby belt, and a rare, century-old Inuvialuit kayak from the Western Arctic.

That display sparked calls by many Inuit, Métis and First Nations representatives to have these items repatriated as part of the reconciliation and healing process. The Catholic Church ran the majority of residential schools in Canada in a system designed to strip children of their language and cultural practices.

Last year, Pope Francis expressed agreement on the importance of restitution. “The restitution of Indigenous things: this is going on, with Canada, at least we were in agreement to do so,” he said.

The Globe reached out to the Holy See press office for comment Friday and did not hear back.

Major Indigenous organizations in Canada have told The Globe this year that they want to see more transparency on the Vatican’s holdings, and eventually, the return of items.

Regarding the kayak, the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation has said it is interested in the repatriation of all cultural artifacts, “including the kayak, that have been removed from the region as we work to preserve and revitalize Inuvialuit cultural identity and values within a changing northern society.”

Mr. Trudeau and Pope Francis have discussed this topic before. Two years ago – in July, 2022, while the Pope was in Quebec City, they spoke of the need for the church to “take concrete action” to repatriate Indigenous items that the Vatican holds.

In Friday’s exchange, Mr. Trudeau thanked the Pontiff for his 2022 visit to Canada; a readout of the meeting said they discussed “the need for the Church to take concrete action to repatriate Indigenous cultural artifacts.”