By B.C. Catholic staff, Canadian Catholic News (with files from the Catholic Register)
[Vancouver – CCN] – A long-awaited week of spiritual diplomacy between Pope Francis and Canada’s Indigenous people has started, with a delegation of more than 60 Indigenous representatives from Canada heading to Rome – among them 13 British Columbia First Nations members.
Indigenous Elders, knowledge keepers, residential school survivors, and youth make up the primary Canadian delegation that will meet with Pope Francis in private meetings next week. There are 13 First Nations, nine Metis, and eight Inuit delegates from across Canada.
A second “plenary” group is also part of the Canadian delegation and consists of 32 First Nations, Inuit, and Metis people from across Canada, including youth, elders, cultural, and emotional health support workers. Among them are six Indigenous delegates sponsored by the Archdiocese of Vancouver to share a perspective from their own nations.
A spokeswoman said the Vancouver archdiocese’s sponsoring of the six delegates “reflects the nurturing and growing relationships between the archdiocese and the First Nations as we work together on truth and reconciliation.”
Jody Sydor Jones said the plenary delegation will have private Indigenous-led meetings with Vatican officials “to provide an opportunity for the delegates to share their stories, be heard, and engage in meaningful dialogue.”
In addition to the archdiocese-sponsored B.C. delegates, two other First Nations representatives from B.C. are among the primary delegation that will meet with the Pope.
Each Indigenous group – Inuit, Metis, and First Nations – in the primary delegation will have a one-hour private meeting with the Pope, and both the primary and plenary delegations will meet the Pope at a private General Audience April 1.
A statement from the Canadian bishops said, “The audience will provide an opportunity for the Holy Father to publicly respond after listening intently to delegates throughout the week.” A live-streamed media briefing will follow.
The 32 primary delegates were selected in collaboration with the Assembly of First Nations, the Métis National Council, and the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and “bring a depth of lived experience and insight on the legacy of residential schools and the impacts of colonialism, with many directly engaged in the ongoing journey of healing and reconciliation,” said the bishops.
“As Canadian bishops, we are grateful to these delegates for walking with us on this journey and to Pope Francis for his attention to their suffering and his deeply-held commitment to social justice,” said CCCB President Bishop Raymond Poisson of St. Jerome.
“We expect that these private encounters will allow the Holy Father to meaningfully address both the ongoing trauma and legacy of suffering faced by Indigenous Peoples to this day, as well as the role of the Catholic Church in the residential school system, which contributed to the suppression of Indigenous languages, culture and spirituality.”
The Métis and Inuit delegates will meet with Pope Francis in separate meetings Monday while the First Nations delegates will meet with him on Thursday.
The bishops taking part in the trip are Bishop Poisson, CCCB vice-president Bishop William McGrattan of Calgary, Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith, Regina Archbishop Donald Bolen, Winnipeg Archbishop Richard Gagnon, and Churchill-Hudson Bay Bishop Anthony Krótki.
The B.C. delegates will have meetings with Vatican officials as well as with Paul Gibbard, charge d’affaires at the Canadian Embassy to the Holy See.
On Thursday, Assembly of First Nations Northwest Territories Regional Chief Gerald Antoine took part in an international press corps gathering on Zoom, saying, “I also ask that everybody, every Canadian, stand with us First Nations.”
Together with Pope Francis, the First Nations delegation in Rome hopes “to create a path forward,” Antoine 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 in Kamloops 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 in B.C. said she 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.
A long history has preceded next week’s meetings in Rome, said Antoine, who cited Pope St. John Paul II’s truncated 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 on 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 titleholders, 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.