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As a Cree writer who was raised Catholic, I’m fascinated by next week’s historic Indigenous delegation to the Vatican. So much needs to be addressed, but I hope the delegation’s efforts aren’t in vain

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A priest's funeral is held in Grouard, Alta., in 1948, at St. Bernard's Mission, a residential school. The author's mother and other relatives were sent to the school in the early 20th century.COURTESY OF LA SOCIETÉ HISTORIQUE ET GÉNÉALOGIQUE DE SMOKY RIVER, DONNELLY, ALTA.

Darrel J. McLeod is the author of Peyakow: Reclaiming Cree Dignity, and the winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award for non-fiction in 2018.

Several weeks ago, on Ash Wednesday, I came across people walking down the cobblestone streets of Puerto Vallarta, where I spend the winter months, with black ashen crosses drawn unevenly on their foreheads. This took me back to my childhood in Northern Alberta in the 1960s, when this was done to me. Each time, it left me mystified and confused.

On Ash Wednesday, after you had confessed your sins to a priest, taken communion and had a black cross drawn in the middle of your forehead (a signal to the world that you were a repentant sinner), you got a stiff white card with slots for dimes – 46 slots, one for each day of Lent. When the card was full, you would take it back to the church. We were poor, and there were seven children. Finding and setting aside seven dimes each day in that era was a real sacrifice. Children sent money to the Vatican, including poor Indigenous children. There were no exceptions.

The dark history of the Catholic Church’s interactions with Indigenous people in Canada – and the church’s impact on my own family – has been weighing on me in the lead up to a historic visit to the Vatican by an Indigenous delegation. The visit, which begins on Monday, will bring First Nations, Inuit and Métis representatives face to face with the Pope. Their aim will be to address the church’s role in Canada’s residential school system and lay the groundwork for the Pope’s coming visit to Canada.

For me, a Cree man who grew up deeply entrenched in the Catholic Church, this is a moment of tension and fascination, as I ponder how the meeting could unfold and what it might accomplish.

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Darrel J. McLeod.Courtesy of RBC Taylor Prize

Two things were clear to me as a child raised in the Catholic tradition: First, you were born a sinner, and second, this would cost you money. Born in sin, and from there it simply got worse. I learned the hierarchy of sin at the age of seven or so: venial sins, mortal sins and the seven deadly sins, some of which were seemingly impossible to avoid (if you even thought about doing something bad, you’d sinned). Upon dying, everyone had to go to purgatory for at least three days to attempt to burn the black spots of sin off their souls. If, after three days, their sins were gone, they might go to heaven.

You were to go to church every Sunday to confess, seek absolution and put money in the collection plate. None of it made sense, but the graphic pictures of people screaming out in agony as they burned in hell instilled the fear of God in me. It took years of counselling, therapy and deprogramming to get over this.

Now, as an adult, I’m incredulous that anyone would plant these seeds of darkness and defeat in the mind of any child. None of it made sense, but I became an altar boy anyway, mostly to please my mother. Which raises another troubling childhood conundrum: Mother was a devout Catholic most of her life (mostly out of fear, I believe), but still she found ways of warning me about the dangers of Catholicism – in particular, sexual abuse by priests and nuns.

She told me a story of one of her brothers returning home after running something like 30 miles through the snow in the middle of the night, because the priest he was travelling with in the area – and ostensibly assisting with mass – had molested him. He was hurt and scared. She wanted me to know that she suspected the priest had abused another uncle, as well as another relative, closer to my own age. This, while having an ongoing affair with one of my aunts. I recall that priest to this day. He smoked incessantly and swore a blue streak. Because of this man’s behaviour, I could never call him, or any other priest, father.

I left the Catholic Church at 14 because it no longer held any meaning or purpose for me. My friends persuaded me to join the United Church, and, in the few years I attended, I got counselling and therapy, experienced friendship and support, enjoyed communal meals, sang in the choir, and even received emergency financial support. There was a youth group with seasonal camps in Banff and Naramata, B.C., and the focus was personal development rather than indoctrination. I felt a sense of belonging, and my self-esteem was boosted incredibly. This never happened in the Catholic setting. In short, the church took from me, as a child and teen, but never gave anything back.

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As their parents attend Mass, youth are reflected in the glass of a religious image at the Lac Ste Anne National Historic Site in Alberta. The lake has long been used as a sacred place: Nakota Sioux named it Wakamne (God’s Lake) and Cree-speaking people named it Mânitow Sâkahikanihk (Lake of the Spirit).Amber Bracken/The Globe and Mail

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Kapawe’no First Nation Chief Sydney Halcrow speaks in Edmonton on March 1 about efforts to identify unmarked graves at the former St. Bernard's site.Jason Franson/The Canadian Press

This year on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, the Kapawe’no First Nation at Grouard, Alta., made an announcement that a team of experts they had collaborated with had found 169 potential unmarked graves at the site of the former St. Bernard’s Mission, the Catholic residential school my mother and many other family members attended in the early 1900s.

Mother’s story is similar to those of many Indigenous people who were alive during the 150 years or so when residential schools were in operation throughout Canada. Mother and her siblings, aunts and uncles were taken away at the ages of six or seven, forcefully, and were confined for at least 10 months at a time in the care of priests, nuns and hired lay help.

This resulted in the disruption of the family unit, a devastating breach of the parent-child bond, the elimination of their traditional diet and the torture of those who persisted in speaking their native language.

Many children died at these institutions, and some of their remains undoubtedly rest in unmarked graves like the ones detected at St. Bernard’s. Those who survived were indoctrinated with nightmarish religious beliefs and taught that their traditional belief system, culture and language were evil. Predictably, this resulted in brutal psychological trauma and a loss of self-esteem that reverberates to this day, in subsequent generations.

Mother told a story of her and her sister Margaret having to walk barefoot, their moccasins around their necks, for two days, subsisting on bread and water, as punishment for speaking Nehiyaw (Cree) in St. Bernard’s. I can’t begin to imagine the frustration a young child would feel at not being able to express themselves adequately, for years, until the target language, English, had been sufficiently acquired. The brainwashing worked; the language was lost in just two generations. In my family, few of my generation, or the younger ones, speak Nehiyaw fluently. When we would ask Mother to teach us, she would say: “English. You have to speak English if you wanna be somebody someday.”

The violent imposition of residential schools wasn’t the only devastating blow to our people. The imposition of Treaty 8 was equally crushing. Through Treaty 8, we lost ownership and use of our lands, territories and resources. Many families were forced onto reserves, while others were promised private lands to be held in family groupings. The Catholic Church was instrumental in bringing the numbered treaties to First Nations. In the case of Treaty 8, Father Albert Lacombe, as an integral part of the treaty commission, persuaded the local Cree chiefs to sign, saying the commissioners were men of God.

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Christmas Eve at the Vatican, 2021: At top, people gather in St. Peter's Square ahead of the mass conducted inside the basilica, bottom.Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters; Alessandra Tarantino/AP

The notion of a visit to the Vatican always mystified me. There was so much hype and rumour about this when I was a child. Women were told that, if they had 21 children, they would get a free trip to Rome and an audience with the Pope.

In 1998, I went, on my own, to see what all the hype was about. I was appalled by what I saw.

The opulence of the Vatican and surrounding area struck a blow to my psyche, instantly conjuring images of the poor boy I’d been, placing my dimes into the white cardboard cards for Lent, placing my parents’ hard-earned and much needed money into the collection plate each Sunday. I recalled all of my relations doing the same thing. In Mexico, I’d seen Indigenous people, much poorer than my family, wander into churches to deposit their scarce pesos at prayer stations.

In the streets surrounding the Vatican there were more cathedrals. I learned that various orders of priests were in competition with each other to see who could build the biggest and best church.

And the gold in the Vatican – it was everywhere. Each pope, in their private apartment, had their name inscribed in gold-plated crown mouldings on the entire periphery of the ceiling in each room, and the apartment would be sealed off for years after their death.

The Sistine Chapel usually inspires awe, but upon entering it I became nauseated. I desperately wanted to appreciate the beauty of the art – I truly did. But it hurt too much to see such opulence, which I knew had come at the expense of many poor Catholics over countless generations.

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Father Bruno Silvestrini, custodian of the apostolic sacred sites, closes the door of the Sistine Chapel last June.ANDREW HARNIK/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

With all this personal background and history, I am of course fascinated by the coming visit by a delegation of First Nations chiefs and other Indigenous leaders from Canada to the Vatican. I admire the hard work that has led up to this significant event, and I deeply respect the leaders involved. I know they will do a wonderful job and I pray their efforts aren’t in vain. I haven’t had any involvement in this planning and have no connection to the delegation, but that hasn’t stopped me from formulating my own ideas and imaginings about what could happen at this meeting. And I try to imagine what my mother would have hoped to see.

First, while there are several powerful women in the First Nations’ delegation, I know Mother would have wanted to see a woman to head it up – for so many reasons. As we all know, women have historically been oppressed and subjugated within the Church, and Indigenous societies in Canada are predominantly matriarchal. I think this would have sent a powerful statement to an all-male institution that has consistently, to the present day, refused to empower women.

I had hoped the head of the delegation and the majority of the delegates would be non-Catholics or ex-Catholics, to avoid being drawn into the historic dynamic of subjugation and oppression – indoctrination that begins in one’s childhood is extremely hard to navigate around when dealing with powerful ecclesiastical figures on their own turf. However, having seen the list of delegates, I am less concerned about this. Collectively the First Nations’ delegation is impressive in its scope and breadth of experience, knowledge and negotiating skills. Including youth was a particularly brilliant touch.

It will be fascinating to see how the First Nations delegates manage the traditional protocols for meeting with a Pope. Will they call him “Most Holy Father” and genuflect? Whatever they do protocol wise, I hope they are able to strike a balance between diplomacy and assertiveness in plenary discussions as well as in their private audiences with Pope Francis.

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The Pope meets Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in 2017.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

In terms of potential outcomes of the visit, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action set out an excellent roadmap of what the Catholic Church should do to address residential school abuses, beginning with a direct apology from the Pope during a future visit to Canada, and the construction of national and regional monuments to residential school victims.

It’s clear, however, that the only meaningful contribution the church can make at this point is funding. They have no track record in running unbiased, secular social programs, and they’ve demonstrated with their failure to pay the amount set out in the 2006 residential schools settlement agreement, $25-million, that they cannot be trusted. (The irony of not being able to trust the largest religious organization in the world isn’t lost on me.)

My expectations for what the visit will accomplish hover around zero. A papal visit to Canada and an apology are likely the least costly measures, so those things may be confirmed. The bishops of Canada may agree to further negotiations, but there will be no commitments.

Keeping the inadequacy of the response of the Catholic Church to the legacy of residential schools in Canada prominent in the public eye, increased moral persuasion and perhaps further legal action: these are the only strategies that will bring any type of meaningful response. Given the reticence of the church to co-operate, the process will take years.

That being said, I wish the delegation well. They certainly have their work cut out for them on this difficult and highly emotional mission.

Residential schools: More from The Globe and Mail

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