A statue of St. Jean de Brebeuf at the Martyrs’ Shrine in Midland, Ont. Recalls the long spiritual journey of Indigenous Christians in Canada. Photo by Michael Swan

Indigenous hope to ‘create path forward’ with Pope Francis

  • March 24, 2022

A week of spiritual diplomacy between Pope Francis and three Canadian Indigenous delegations will begin with hope, Assembly of First Nations Northwest Territories Regional Chief Gerald Antoine told an international press corps gathering on Zoom March 24.

The AFN press conference was a precursor to long-planned encounters between the Pope and Canadian Indigenous people in Rome March 28, March 31 and April 1. Thirty-two Indigenous elders, knowledge-keepers, residential school survivors and youth are going on the trip organized by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“I also ask that everybody, every Canadian, stand with us First Nations,” Antoine said.

Together with Pope Francis, the First Nations delegation in Rome hopes “to create a path forward,” he said.

The Rome trip is the beginning and not the end of an important diplomatic engagement with the Holy See, said Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty, who will represent Quebec in the AFN delegation.

“There is a lot of follow-up work to be done, beyond an apology,” Gull-Masty said. “There have to be additional steps on his (Pope Francis’) part.”

Kukpi7 Chief Rosanne Casimir of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation will represent British Columbia in the AFN delegation. She said she was grateful for how Canadians had stood with Indigenous people since ground-penetrating radar had uncovered neglected and forgotten graves near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School on Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc territory, and that the CCCB’s statements on the reasons for the trip to Rome gave her hope.

“Reconciliation — it’s not one-sided,” Casimir said. “It’s something we do together.”

Youth delegate Taylor Behn-Tsakoza from Fort Nelson First Nation plans to speak with Pope Francis about the legacy of residential schools and intergenerational trauma. The older generation of survivors “really did the hard part,” she said.

“It’s up to our generation to carry on that legacy,” said Behn-Tsakoza.

There’s a long history that goes into next week’s meetings in Rome, said Antoine, who cited Pope St. John Paul II’s aborted 1984 mission to Fort Simpson, NWT, and John Paul’s 1987 fulfilment of a promise to return. The history includes Pope John Paul II’s preaching on the vocation of young people during the 2002 World Youth Day in Toronto and the 2009 Indigenous delegation to Rome received by Pope Benedict XVI.

Ultimately, Antoine expects the exchange with Pope Francis to be focused spiritual truths about a difficult history.

“What has occurred here is that our family, our spiritual family, has been uprooted, displaced and also relocated,” Antoine said. “That really has a tremendous impact. You can see the results through intergenerational trauma that we have all experienced. Despite the relentless things afoot, we have never given up our teachings, nor our existence.”

Antoine spoke of the trip in terms of a spiritual journey.

“We’re now at the base of this huge hill. This is where the Holy Father also stands. Our challenge, for all of us, is how do we step, how do we climb that hill,” he said.

Antoine reiterated three key goals the First Nations are seeking from the trip to Rome and the Pope’s subsequent visit to Canada — returning land that was often given to Church bodies without input from Indigenous title-holders, healing initiatives beyond the $30 million pledge the bishops made last September and a full renunciation of the doctrine of discovery, including a solemn Church teaching on the dignity, sovereignty and equality of Indigenous people.

The Indigenous message to Pope Francis and to Canadians is “simple, straightforward and honest,” said Antoine.

“Our purpose is not to create fear or a sense of panic,” he said.

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