Are we ready to forgive?
As Indigenous people, how do we unburden ourselves from the pain and torment of our spirits being torn apart – our very beings vilified and abused just for being who we are?
Forgiveness is not easy.
An Indigenous delegation of Métis, First Nations and Inuit came to Rome last Sunday looking for something more than an apology from the Pope for residential-school abuses. An apology more than owed after 500 years of domineering Christianity – a religion that pillaged and plundered, crusaded with the authority of papal bulls and doctrines that said we were rudderless savages, and that the land we have walked on since time began was theirs for the taking.
In the name of the Father.
Some apologies are generational. To be spoken over the course of many lifetimes. An invocation, again and again. One we expect to hear a second time on the hoped July trip of Pope Francis to Canada, where it is expected he will finally fulfill the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 58th call to action: an apology on Turtle Island. Seven years after the TRC’s final report, penned thanks to 6,500 residential-school survivors who told truths over six years of testimony.
Some in the full Indigenous delegation were divided on where the apology should happen. Some felt he should have saved it for Canada, but others felt it should be now. Just in case that other chance never happens.
In St. Peter’s Square on Friday, amid the dancing, the fiddling, the defiant jigging and during the side meetings Indigenous leaders were having with cardinals, bishops and oblates – seeking access to long-hidden records and renunciations of papal bulls – not one person here forgot what they came for. Warriors all, dressed in regalia and red sashes, ribbon skirts and beaded medallions, the survivors wanted to meet the Pope, look the Catholic Church in the eye and say, we are still here. We do not forget. But do we forgive?
That is a work in progress.
In a Roman hotel breakfast room, as survivors milled about the buffet table, refreshing their coffees and grabbing croissants before buses took them to meet the Pope, Norman Yakeleya pulled up his shirt and showed me a large scar across his abdomen.
“Seventeen stitches,” Mr. Yakeleya said. “They cut me. I do not know why.”
He felt sick to his stomach about the day to come and thought quietly about his mother, Laura Lennie. That is why he was in Rome. Not for himself. For her.
When he finally told her, decades after he was molested, sexually and physically abused at the notorious Grollier Hall, in Inuvik, N.W.T., she told him it also had happened to her at another Catholic-run school, Fort Simpson.
It’s estimated nearly 450 children were abused at Grollier between 1959 and 1979, Mr. Yakeleya said. The motto of Grollier, drummed into him by the priests was: “Don’t talk. Don’t trust. Don’t feel.”
At the so-called school, no one called Norman by his first name. He was given a new identity, a number: 153.
Everyone who came to Rome did so thinking of survivors, both here and those in the spirit world. We thought of the intergenerational lives we’ve lost. The thousands of children who never came home from residential schools, murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls and families ripped apart and children stolen by the Sixties Scoop.
I think of the students who still, in the 21st century, are dying to get an education and how many of our communities still need proper high schools. I think of the Seven Fallen Feathers: Jethro Anderson, 15; Curran Strang, 18; Paul Panacheese, 21; Robyn Harper, 18; Reggie Bushie, 15; Kyle Morrisseau, 17; Jordan Wabasse, 15.
At St. Peter’s, I ran into Eleanore Sunchild, the lawyer for the family of Colten Boushie, the 22-year-old Red Pheasant First Nation man shot and killed by farmer Gerald Stanley in 2016. She was wearing a “Justice for Colten” button.
We carry them all with us.
So, what does it mean to forgive?
“Being in the presence of forgiveness,” says Mr. Yakeleya, “means you acknowledge the pain and the anger. You walk softly on it. That is what our Elders say – keep our language soft – walk on the forgiveness, allow it to happen.”
For decades, Phil Fontaine, the former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, sought an apology. This is his second time to Rome.
I asked Mr. Fontaine what it felt like to finally be in Francis’s presence, to stare into his face. His answer surprised.
“He had the biggest smile on his face. I never expected to see that. When I was introduced to him, I had this strange urge come over me. I wanted to touch him. Stroke his arm,” Mr. Fontaine said after the news cameras disappeared.
But can he forgive?
“This Pope is easier to forgive than the last one and the many who have come before him.”
For decades, church officials fought Indigenous leadership “tooth and nail” over issuing an apology, said Mr. Fontaine. They said it was too expensive to say sorry; it would leave the church liable for genocide.
Every single Indigenous person here on this pilgrimage to Rome had a family touched by the violence caused by Catholic policy.
We are here for nine-year-old Emma Laffort, who went to St. Joseph’s Indian Residential School and died in 1910. We are here for each of the 751 graves found at Marieval Indian Residential School near Cowessess First Nation, and the more than 200 graves found nearly one year ago at Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc, Kamloops.
Now the hard work begins. How will First Nations, Métis and Inuit give effect to the apology? An action plan, a path forward with clear and promising restitution, needs to be devised. And it will be written by the next generation of Indigenous leadership – people like Cassidy Caron, the newly elected president of the Métis National Council.
Ms. Caron has acted as a unifying voice here in Rome. It is not often Métis, First Nations and Inuit stand together – heck, even live together in the same hotel for a week in a foreign country, looking to face the same demon.
Reconciliation does not stop here at the Vatican. And it will not end until we bring all our children home – those who were murdered and died at the schools, those in the prisons, those in the foster-care system and those living on the streets.
Elder Angie Crerar, the survivor and dynamo who last Monday came out of the Métis meeting with the Pope dancing in her wheelchair to the sounds of the fiddle, gave the last words at Friday’s closing press conference.
“Our children are precious, let’s find them.”
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