Dene Regional Chief Norman Yakeleya from an online news conference introducing AFN delegates to the Rome meeting with Pope Francis later this month.

AFN seeking ‘justice’ in papal meeting

By 
  • December 2, 2021

In one hour gathered in a room with Pope Francis, 13 Assembly of First Nations delegates plan to lay down heavy burdens and raise up the hope of nations.

“Our hope is that this visit and a potential visit from the Pope on our home territories will provide some measure of dignity and respect to the survivors and the intergenerational survivors of the residential schools,” Dene Regional Chief Norman Yakeleya told reporters at a press conference to announce the AFN’s delegation going to Rome.

The AFN delegation will get one hour with Pope Francis on Dec. 20. It will be the last of three sessions with Indigenous Canadians between Dec. 17 and 20. Seven Inuit delegates will meet with the Pope Dec. 17. Eight Métis delegates will meet with him Dec. 18.

“This trip has been a long time coming,” said Yakeleya, who has been asked by National Chief RoseAnne Archibald to lead the delegation. (Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami president Natan Obed will lead the Inuit delegation. Métis National Council president Cassidy Caron will lead her delegation).

“We seek to hear the words on our lands by the Pope. We seek justice. It is only then that we can begin walking truly on the healing path of reconciliation,” Yakeleya said. “I also ask every Canadian to stand with First Nations as we continue this painful but important work.”

Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Chief Roseanne Casimir hinted that she would be asking Pope Francis to visit the site where 215 unmarked graves were discovered in May.

“That too would be extremely significant to visit this part of Canada and to have that opportunity to meet with the survivors,” she said.

While the First Nations’ hour with Pope Francis will touch on a number of themes, the clear focus will be on an apology on Canadian soil, in accordance with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Action #58.

“Nothing would be more important than to have the Pope issue an apology from our homeland,” said former AFN National Chief Phil Fontaine, who will represent the Manitoba chiefs on the trip.

Fontaine led a delegation in 2009 to meet with Pope Benedict XVI.

“The words we heard from Benedict XVI were expressions of deep regret for the abuse inflicted on First Nations children who attended residential schools,” said Fontaine. “At that point, we were not so disappointed that we didn’t accept those words. But today the circumstances are so different from when we first went to Rome in 2009. We didn’t have the TRC and the Calls to Action. We didn’t have the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. We didn’t have the 10 principles of reconciliation (promulgated by the TRC). We didn’t have unmarked graves.”

Both Fontaine and Yakeleya are residential school survivors.

“Who ever thought that a residential school survivor from Inuvik for seven years, for seven, eight years I spent there, that I would have an opportunity to talk to the chief of the Roman Catholics, the head boss, the head man, the Holy Father. What would I say?” Yakeleya asked. “You gotta be careful. Prayers come pretty fast and pretty good.”

Youth delegate Rosalie LaBillois plans to speak to Pope Francis about the intergenerational trauma that her generation has fought through.

“That opportunity that I get is something that my grandfather never got,” she said. “He never got the chance to speak his truth. There are unmentionable things that he could never speak about. Now it’s my opportunity to speak my truth in the hopes that I could do, to the best of my ability, to help represent that youth perspective from across the country, on how we are severely impacted.”

LaBillois, who is the AFN National Youth Council co-chair, wanted to be clear that the mandate to the delegates extends beyond the week in Rome.

“After our trip, what’s it going to look like when we come home?” she asked. “How do we share our experience, in being able to empower young people, to be proud of who they are?”

Fontaine said the delegation is discussing a document it hopes to present to Pope Francis at the end of their meeting.

“We were thinking he might wish to address that document when he comes to Canada,” he said.

“We’re prepared for his arrival on Indigenous land, to welcome him,” said Yakeleya. “We hope and say our prayers that he will apologize to the families, to the survivors, as he has done in other countries to the Indigenous peoples.”

July 9, 2015 Pope Francis apologized in Bolivia, acknowledging that “grave sins were committed against the native peoples of America in the name of God.”  During a 1992 visit to the Dominican Republic, St. John Paul II apologized to the Western hemisphere’s Indigenous people for “pain and suffering” caused during 500 years of the Church’s presence in the Americas.

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