“Truth, justice, healing, reconciliation.”
These words express the goals which delegations from several of Canada’s indigenous peoples came to share with Pope Francis this week, in an effort to heal the pain caused by residential schools.
Two delegations met with the Pope on Monday, 28 March, in successive audiences — one from the Métis Nation and another from the Inuit People. They were accompanied by several Bishops from the Canadian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, with each delegation meeting with the Pope for roughly an hour.
The Director of the Holy See Press Office, Matteo Bruni, said in a statement that the audiences were focused on giving the Pope the opportunity to “listen and to offer space for the painful stories shared by the survivors.”
Path of reconciliation
In his Angelus address on 6 June 2020, Pope Francis shared with the world his dismay at the dramatic news which had come a few weeks earlier, of the discovery in Canada of a mass grave in the Kamloops Indian Residential School, with more than 200 bodies of indigenous children.
The discovery marked a symbol of a cruel past, during which, from 1880 to the final decades of the 20th century, government-funded institutions run by Christian organizations, sought to educate and convert indigenous youth and assimilate them into mainstream Canadian society, through systematic abuse.
The discovery in June 2020 led Canada’s Bishops to make an apology and set up a series of projects to support survivors. The importance of the process of reconciliation is demonstrated by the Pope’s willingness to receive the delegations in the Vatican on Monday and on Thursday, 31 March, in view of a future papal visit in Canada, which has been announced but not yet officially confirmed.
On 1 April, the Pope held an audience in the Vatican’s Clementine Hall with the various delegations and with representatives of the Canadian Bishops’ Conference.
“Never too late to do the right thing”
On Monday, the Pope first met with members of the Métis Nation. The meeting was filled with words, stories and memories, as well as many gestures, both from the Pope and from the indigenous representatives who found themselves walking a common path of “truth, justice, healing, and reconciliation.”
The group left the Apostolic Palace accompanied by the sound of two violins — a symbol of the group’s culture and identity. They then met the international press in Saint Peter’s Square to share the details of their morning. Cassidy Caron, the President of the Métis National Council, read a statement highlighting the “untold numbers [who] have now left us without ever having their truth heard and their pain acknowledged, without ever receiving the very basic humanity and healing they so rightfully deserved.”
“And while the time for acknowledgement, apology and atonement is long overdue,” she said, “it is never too late to do the right thing.”
Pope Francis’ sorrow
The Métis Nation has done its part, said Ms. Caron, to prepare for the papal audience by carrying out the “difficult but essential work” of listening to and understanding the victims and their families. The results of that work were presented to Pope Francis on Monday: “Pope Francis sat and he listened, and he nodded along when our survivors told their stories,” said Ms. Caron. “I could sense his suffering in his reactions when children were mentioned, she added. “Our survivors did an incredible job in that meeting of standing up and telling their truths. They were so brave and so courageous.”
“We have done the difficult work of preparing for our journey, for our conversation with the Pope. We have done the work of translating our words to those that he would understand.” Ms. Caron then expressed her hopes that the Pope and the universal Church will also proceed with the work of translating those words into “real action for truth, for justice, for healing, and for reconciliation.”
“When we invited Pope Francis to join us in a journey for truth, reconciliation, justice and healing, the only words that he spoke back to us in English, much of it was in his language, he repeated truth, justice and healing — and I take that as a personal commitment.”
Several times the President of the Métis National Council repeated the word “pride”. “We’re celebrating being here together, being here together as one nation and in partnership with our Inuit and First Nations delegates from Canada as well,” said Ms. Caron. “We are still here and we are proud to be Métis, and we invite Canadians to learn alongside us who we are and what our history is in Canada.”
Ms. Caron said she has submitted a request for access to documents held in the Vatican regarding residential schools. “We did, we are, and we will be continuing to advocate for much of what the Métis Nation needs to be sure to understand our full truth,” she said. “We will be speaking more with the Pope on this.”
Another person in the group in Saint Peter’s Square was Angie Crerar, 85. With short hair, dark glasses, and a multi-coloured sash over a black dress, she arrived in a wheelchair but stood up when she shared parts of her story, the same one she told the Pope. Over the course of 10 years that she and her two little sisters spent in a residential school in the Northwest Territories in 1947, “we lost everything, everything; everything except our language.”
“When we left, it took me more than 45 years to get back what I lost.” Angie, however, says she doesn’t want to be crushed by past memories, but rather looks to the present. “We’re stronger now,” she said. “They did not break us. We’re still here and we intend to live here forever. And they are going to help us, work with us which for us is awesome. For me it’s a victory, victory for our people for that many years that they lost.”
Regarding her audience with Pope Francis, Ms. Crerar said she arrived at the Vatican feeling nervous, but that she found herself with “the gentlest, kindest person”. The Pope even hugged her, she said, erasing decades of suffering. “I was standing right beside him, they had to keep me away… It was so wonderful. And he was so kind. And I was nervous, but after he spoke to me, and his language, I didn’t understand him when he was speaking, but his smile and his reaction, his body language, I just felt, man I just love this man.”
By Salvatore Cernuzio