Manitoba Metis Federation president David Chartrand points to a photo of Louis Riel. Chartrand hopes the Pope will visit Riel’s grave. Photo courtesy of Manitoba Metis Federation

Metis praise Pope Francis for listening

By 
  • April 27, 2022

The Red River Metis went to Rome looking for the restoration of their communities, their culture and their churches.

“From our side, we’re not looking for money,” Manitoba Metis Federation president David Chartrand told The Catholic Register as he visited a cemetery for Canadian soldiers outside of Rome the day after meeting with Pope Francis in the Vatican. “In fact, we’re showing him we are giving money to the Church.”

The Manitoba Metis Federation is the national government of the Red River Metis in Manitoba, which broke away from the Metis National Council in 2021.

The meeting between 55 Red River Metis survivors, elders and leaders and Pope Francis will strengthen bonds of Metis people to the Church that have been fundamental to Metis identity over the past 200 years, Chartrand said.

“We’re in a pretty good place now in our hearts,” he said. “This was truly a real time of healing, the beginning of our hope and our revitalization, our renewal. It’s going to take us many miles to walk together to take us to a better place.”

As one of the survivors who told Pope Francis his own story of abuse in a Catholic-run residential school, Manitoba Metis Federation minister of residential schools Andrew Carrier also spoke of the opening for reconciliation.

“I feel blessed that we had this opportunity. He (Pope Francis) was very sincere. He listened. I had an opportunity to speak and I expressed myself in Spanish, which surprised the Pope and a few others in the room,” Carrier said. “We need to overcome the pain and move forward, because we do need the Church. We need to be able to connect spiritually.”

Winnipeg Archbishop Richard Gagnon called the meeting historic.

“Beyond the historicness of it, the historicity of it, it was a very important contemporary encounter with a man who has spent his life listening to people who have been on the peripheries of society in different countries. He’s a very careful listener,” Gagnon said.

The focus now is on the future, said the archbishop.

“If we can learn to appreciate other people’s journeys more, then the future does have a lot of hope,” he said.

The Church in Metis communities faces the same challenges it faces elsewhere, Chartrand said. He noted the shortage of priests, the greying of pews, detachment of young people from the Church and secularization of the surrounding culture.

“If everybody starts walking away, what will be left?” Chartrand asked. “Will the Church survive? We know for a fact that in the Metis community we’re still strong Catholics. They’re going to look for a priest when there’s a funeral. They’re going to look for a priest when there’s a baptism.”

The Manitoba Metis Federation has begun spending money to restore churches and pilgrimage sites. Chartrand has commissioned a new cross from Jordan, one that will be blessed with water from the Jordan River, for the grotto in St. Malo, 70 km south of Winnipeg.

Chartrand wanted Pope Francis to understand how the Church played a fundamental role in the founding and growth of the Metis Nation. He still hopes for sainthood for Louis Riel, who was executed as a traitor by the Canadian government in 1885.

“I wanted (Pope Francis) to understand that we are strong believers in God. We are strong believers with the Catholic Church. We’ve been with them for over 200 years, side-by-side with them,” Chartrand said. “Our leader (Riel) gave his life for us and them, was murdered and executed in my country in 1885.”

Chartrand repeated his request that Pope Francis visit Winnipeg to bless the grave of Louis Riel.

The Pope’s apology delivered privately to the Metis delegation in the Vatican was moving for all 55 delegates, Chartrand said.

“When he said, ‘I accept it, I’m taking responsibility, ownership’ — do you know how powerful that is for us to have somebody take ownership?” Chartrand said. “It touched every heart in that room. He made himself human. He said, ‘Pray for me.’... That is powerful, very powerful for us. People were crying.”

The story of abuse at Indian residential schools and day schools is primarily a story of individual failures, followed by the institutional failure to bring people to account, said Carrier.

“I have fond memories as a child going to church, going to different seasonal events through the Church and following the word of the Lord,” the abuse survivor said. “That being said, we also suffered at the hands of individuals who misappropriated their authority and abused the children. That should never have happened.”

“I was whipped by the nuns on my calves and I was shamed by the nuns in my classroom for speaking Saulteaux. They tried to break that from me,” Chartrand told a press conference after the papal audience. “They didn’t. I still speak Saulteaux today.”

Reconciliation is a challenge that now lies before both the Church and Canadian society in general, said Chartrand.

From youth programs in parishes to resident priests at every Metis church to repairs of church buildings, what the Metis want from the Church amounts to just one thing.

“We want revitalization and we want hope,” Chartrand said. “You can’t change history. You can change the future.”

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.