Fiddling while Rome learns: Métis man says he was honoured to play before Pope Francis

Alberta Métis fiddler Alex Kusturok and other delegates from the Métis National Council play music in Rome prior to meeting Pope Francis. Kusturok hopes the music he played contributes to the Pope’s commitment to Indigenous reconciliation. (CNS photo by Paul Haring)

By Jonathan Bradley, The B.C. Catholic

[Vancouver – Canadian Catholic News] – Alberta Métis fiddler Alex Kusturok says the opportunity to play before Pope Francis during the recent Indigenous meetings in Rome was not only an amazing experience for him, but he’s looking forward to telling his newborn son about it one day.

“It means a lot to me to be asked to go on this trip,” Kusturok told The B.C. Catholic from Rome. “The main purpose of me being here is to be of service and to support the brave elders through music.”

Kusturok was a familiar figure during the meetings in Rome, often photographed with other fiddlers playing Métis classics like Big John McNeil and The Red River Jig to showcase their culture. The latter, if played right, has the power to hit “you in the chest and in the heart,” he told The Globe and Mail, comparing the jig to the spiritual energy of First Nation round dances at pow wows.

The fiddler said he looks forward to sharing his experience with his newborn son when he grows up and learns about the event in school. He also hopes the music he played contributes to Pope Francis’ commitment to reconciliation with Indigenous people.

Related: Indigenous leaders see ‘fresh tracks’ in the hunt for healing

Related: Pope apologizes for treatment of Indigenous Peoples, promises to visit Canada

Related: Indigenous want truth about past, partnership for future

Playing before the Pope was “an honour,” Kusturok told The Cold Lake Sun prior to performing. “The Métis fiddle has the power to move people,” he said. “It’s music that makes you think and that you’ll remember.”

Kusturok said his paternal grandmother was a residential school survivor who kept her own children from experiencing the same ordeal by moving her family around. As a result of their nomadic life his father did not attend school until he was nearly 10.

Although Kusturok does not see himself as a victim of inter-generational trauma, he speculates it might have led to his and his father’s alcoholism. Kusturok recently celebrated three years of sobriety, while his father has been sober for more than 30 years.

Kusturok grew up going to dances around Manitoba where his mother played the fiddle. As a result he began playing the instrument when he was seven years old.

Although he received his first communion, he is not a practising Catholic, he said. While the Catholic Church has earned the hostility it receives from some survivors and communities for its role in residential schools, he said it’s not the faith that’s at fault. “It’s not the teachings, it’s the flawed people,” he said.

Kusturok was among a secondary group of 32 First Nations, Metis, and Inuit people from across Canada who met with Vatican officials. Among these delegates were six Indigenous people sponsored by the Archdiocese of Vancouver.