WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
It’s an opportunity only a select group of Indigenous people are getting: to meet with the head of the Catholic Church and share their culture, but also their experiences of the legacy left behind by the Indian Residential School system.
That Church-run system took over 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children from their families over a span of 150 years with the first school opening in 1831.
Adeline Webber, a member of the Teslin Tlingit First Nation in the Yukon was one of those children. She and her eight siblings were sent to residential schools in the Yukon, and as far away as Alberta.
“So, you know, we didn’t have much of a relationship with my siblings.”
One of her brothers, who was sent to the Choutla Residential School in Carcross, Yukon, never made it home.
“When he was about six, he died in the residential school…we found out that he had measles and he’s buried over there, in Carcross.”
She cradles a pair of baby-sized caribou-hide beaded moccasins as she talks about him.
“But we don’t know where his grave is, and my mother never ever knew where that was. So, you know, that was a really difficult thing for her, myself and my sisters.”
Webber is in Rome as part of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) delegation.
She’s a member of the Teslin Tlingit Council, a self-governing First Nation in Yukon.
Webber said she is bringing those moccasins with her, to give her strength.
“My mother made these many years ago and my three children wore them… and I just thought if I take this, you know, that it’ll comfort me. So I’ll just keep it with me.”
Experience of ‘encounter’
Delegates representing the AFN, the Métis National Council and Canadian Inuit, have been crafting their message to the Pope for months since being invited by The Canadian Council of Catholic Bishops.
The delegations include elders, youth, support workers, knowledge keepers and residential school survivors.
Archbishop Richard Smith in Edmonton is part of a working group that made this meeting happen. There are five other bishops also attending.
“Bishops were talking amongst themselves to strengthen relationships with Indigenous people a number of years ago.”
Archbishop Smith describes the meeting as an experience of encounter.
“That term encounter is central to the Pope’s entire papacy. He keeps calling on the world to establish a culture of encounter, in which people actually meet one another, listen to one another, learn from the other, discern together, etc. and that’s really what is happening here,” he said.
“Listening to the people, and hearing them speak from the heart in the hope that the Pope himself will speak from his heart as he responds to them. I think this is going to be a remarkable, remarkable moment. An historical one.”
2009 Papal visit
This isn’t the first visit to the Vatican for indigenous people.
In 2009, Pope Benedict invited a Canadian delegation to talk about their residential school experiences.
Piita Irniq was part of that delegation, however not part of the private meeting.
“I prefer to say that I was kidnapped in broad daylight right in front of my parents by a Roman Catholic priest in August of 1958,” he says, describing his residential school experience from his Ottawa home.
Irniq was 11 years old when he was put on a boat from Naujaat, Nunavut to Igluligaarjuk, Nunavut, where he was forced to go to Turquetil Hall Residential School.
“That in itself is a very, very traumatic experience. Going to a residential school very foreign to our Inuit culture, Inuit customs and traditions was very, very traumatic also.”
Though not part of this delegation, Irniq has high expectations.
“Look, there was cultural genocide by the Roman Catholic Church. The Roman Catholic Church has to admit for its role for cultural genocide to the Inuit of Canada, to the Indigenous people of Canada.”
Former AFN leader, Phil Fontaine was part of the 2009 visit and met with Pope Benedict.
At a press conference afterwards, Fontaine offered some details.
“He understands the pain and suffering that’s been endured. That he is sorry that we were forced into this tragic situation.”
Yet, a formal apology wasn’t offered. And neither was a statement of reconciliation which Irniq was expecting at the time, acknowledging the loss of culture.
“I came away feeling empty, coming back to Canada at that point because I never feel that he made a statement of reconciliation to the Indigenous Peoples of Canada. That’s the impression that I got from Rome at that time. And I still feel that way today from that experience.”
Pope John Paul II visits Fort Simpson
Leading the AFN in Rome this week is N.W.T. Regional Chief and Dene National Chief, Gerald Antoine.
He was elected in December 2021, and has the background to lead his people for this momentous visit.
That’s because Pope John II visited his traditional land of Łı́ı́dlı̨ Kų́ e in 1987.
“(He) came to visit us and said yes, you have self determination, yes, you have land, you have a way of life. And it has really helped us to really feel that finally, we’re being acknowledged as human beings,” Antoine said.
But the one thing the Holy Father did not offer at that time, was an apology for the Church’s role it had in the abuse and neglect of 150,000 children at Indian residential schools. The loss of culture, language, traditions and the chance to grow up with a family.
“It uprooted our family”
As a child, Regional Chief Antoine was sent to Lapointe Hall, one of two residential schools established in Łı́ı́dlı̨ Kų́e.
“It uprooted our family,” he said.
“I wasn’t allowed to get close to my sister even though we’re only about six feet away and I have relatives that are living in the other residential school, we’re not supposed to get together.”
But that visit in 1987 made by Pope John Paul the Second, brought hope more than of sorrow.
Regional Chief Antoine says his people were overjoyed and welcomed the Holy Father, still being deeply connected to religion despite the residential school system.
A large wooden tipi was built in honor of that visit.
“This structure is also something that really signifies our home, our people and it has become a really spiritual landmark for us all here in our community and the surrounding communities.”
Still waiting for a formal apology
Pope Francis has committed to a visit to Canada to work on reconciliation.
Regional Chief Antoine says he hopes that visit will come with an apology.
“There’s an expectation,” he says. “There’s also a feeling in our people that needs to happen and so I have a really strong sense that it will happen.”
An apology is also what the Métis National Council is hoping for. A step in healing, says President Cassidy Caron.
“A lot of survivors have told me that this is the piece that is missing right now in their healing path. They need the Pope to know the full story of what happened to the Métis people in residential schools in order for them to move on and heal in a good way.”
President Caron says this is what is important to them after numerous consultations with their membership to craft their message to Pope Francis.
Nation-wide desire for papal apology
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which was established in 2007 out of the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history, listened to testimony from former students, their families and other Canadians about the residential school experience.
Across the country, they heard about the desire for an apology from the pope. This was included as Call to Action number 58 in the TRC’s final report in 2012.
Marie Wilson is a former commissioner.
“We also heard many survivors say I have never set foot inside a church since I left residential school, I never intend to set foot inside a church again.”
But they also heard the opposite, Wilson said.
“We also heard from many survivors who said that the church had actually played an important role in their healing. That their traditional culture and spirituality was important to them, but so too was the church and their connection to the church.”
“It takes time to listen”
Pope Francis will be meeting with the Métis National Council, then with Inuit delegates on March 28 for one hour sessions each.
On March 31st, the Holy Father will meet with the Assembly of First Nations.
Archbishop Richard Smith says the amount of time allotted for these meetings is rare.
“I don’t think heads of state get an hour with the Pope and yet for this delegation, the Pope is giving four hours. So right away, we see how much he wants that to happen, how seriously he’s taking this and how much he wants to listen.”
And on April 1st, there will be an audience with Pope Francis and all the delegations from the three Indigenous groups.
It may be known at that time if the Holy Father will promise to deliver an apology in Canada, to residential school survivors and their families for their role in attempting to eradicate Indigenous culture and traditions.
And for the abuse at the hands of those who used their power to neglect and be responsible for those thousands of children now being discovered in mass graves with no names.
As for Adeline Webber, when she speaks with Pope Francis, she says she’ll get her strength from her mother by way of the tiny beaded caribou-hide slippers.
“My mother was a really strong, resilient woman. I wouldn’t have been able to do what she was able to do with all her children taken. So I always admire her.”
Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools or by the latest reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.