The light, melodic sound of fiddles, wafting over tourists in St. Peter’s Square, was a breath of hope and light in this sombre, weighted trip to Vatican City.
A delegation of First Nations, Métis and Inuit people, who continue to survive through genocide, had remarkably agreed to seek an elusive apology from Pope Francis and the Catholic Church by personally flying thousands of kilometres to meet him in his own house. Of the 94 Truth and Reconciliation Commissions Calls to Action, number 58 – demanding an apology by the Catholic Church within one year of the release of the commission’s findings – seems to be one of the hardest to fulfill. It has been nearly seven years.
Oh, this is the beauty of our peoples – that after everything they’ve endured, that they should be the ones to travel here to the Holy See to ask for an apology for the intergenerational suffering caused by the brutality of residential schools. Some delegates even brought gifts, because that is tradition – one that has been kept in defiance of what church teachings tried to eliminate.
Every single person here, invited by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, has been touched by the schools, and they carry their ancestors here with them. Every step to Rome has been accompanied by memories of the children who died – by neglect, abuse or murder at the schools – and of the children lost afterward to the Sixties Scoop, to suicide, to the crisis around murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls. All our family members struggle with the aftermath of these brutal policies of spiritual and human erasure.
This has been a CCCB-controlled trip, and at times, it has felt like an organized pilgrimage, complete with Mass being offered every day at 6 p.m. in the hotel basement. The organization paid for the delegates’ trip (members of the media, including myself, paid our own way), and hired a tour guide and buses to ferry everyone around. On Wednesday there was a bus trip to Assisi, the birthplace of St. Francis.
But this delegation is well aware of what it is up against.
On Monday, the Métis delegation went rogue after their meeting with the Pontiff, the first of four private audiences. Instead of getting back on the idling church buses, they paraded through St. Peter’s Square, led by youth fiddlers. It was a sight to behold. Their red sashes swayed as they sashayed out of the Vatican. One elder even danced in her wheelchair.
The Métis delegation is led by Cassidy Caron, who at the age of 29 became the first woman to be elected as Métis National Council President last fall. She faced the cameras and told the world they weren’t celebrating a triumphant meeting with the Pope. No, they were celebrating the fact that they are still here, a resilient community that stands in partnership with the Inuit and First Nations delegates – and they’ve got a list of demands they expect to be met.
It does not happen often, that all Indigenous people – Métis, Inuit, and First Nations – spend one week together, pushing for monumental change. But many in our communities do not believe an Indigenous delegation should be here at all, that the damage cannot be undone. Still, Ms. Caron believes she is laying the foundation for redress, repatriation, reconciliation. That has meant scheduling meetings with other church officials, beyond the Pope.
“This is very much a business trip for me,” Ms. Caron said Wednesday. “I need to make sure I am getting our message across to as many people as possible and not just the Pope. We only had an hour with him.”
I spoke to Ms. Caron after one of those meetings was cancelled at the last minute; the office for the Cardinal in charge of the doctrine of faith told the Métis delegation that he had gotten sick. However, she did have time with Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops who meets with the Pope for an hour once a week.
Among other things, the Métis want canon law changed such that there will be consequences for those within the Church who say that residential schools weren’t real, or weren’t all that bad. And she echoed Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami President Natan Obed’s call for the Church to stop shielding those accused of sexually abusing children.
It is leaders such as Ms. Caron who now hold the responsibility of continuing to fight an institution that heaped so much suffering on Indigenous people. And those leaders are in pursuit of justice, healing and reconciliation – “that is why we came,” she said. Like the fiddle music lilting in the air, lifting the spirits of the Métis, it is clear that she has the longevity and heart to continue this generational fight.
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