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Meeting with Pope a chance for new beginning, Northwest Territories Indigenous leaders say

The planned meeting in December between Canadian Indigenous delegates and the Pope in Rome has potential to open a new chapter in history, say NWT Indigenous leaders.
The visit with the Pope in December is not just about asking for an apology for residential school abuses but also a way to find a new path of justice, respect and recognition for Indigenous peoples, said Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya. NNSL file photo

The planned meeting in December between Canadian Indigenous delegates and the Pope in Rome has potential to open a new chapter in history, say NWT Indigenous leaders.

First Nation, Métis and Inuit delegations are scheduled to meet with Pope Francis in Rome between Dec. 17 and 20, with residential school survivors expected to be among the attendees, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops said in a tweet in June.

READ MORE: Delegation to the Holy See

Church’s role in genocide, dehumanization

Dene Nation National Chief Norman Yakeleya wants the Pope to apologize for the involvement of the Catholic Church in the residential school system.

“(He should say) the very simple words of ‘we are sorry’ and to acknowledge that they did wrong,” Yakeleya said. “It’s an apology they need to make. It can’t be just a hollow apology. It’s got to be meaningful to the residential school survivors and their families and to the community and to the Dene culture and way of life.”

Yakeleya also wants the full truth to be divulged of the Church’s role in the “assimilation, genocide and the dehumanization process experienced at residential schools in the North.”

But the point of the visit to Rome isn’t just to receive an apology, Yakeleya noted.

Rather, the delegation can be a start on a new path for justice, respect and recognition for Indigenous people.

“The Church had a role in the lives of Indigenous peoples. They need to acknowledge that they did something terribly wrong. We want to seek justice and acknowledgement of our way of life as Indigenous people. We want to bring balance back into our lives.”

As to whether the national chief wants the Pope to ask for forgiveness for residential schools, Yakeleya said he would first seek direction from survivors and Elders.

“I would take that message back to the Pope. He can sit with our Elders and ask for forgiveness. We want freedom from the trauma of the past so we can live with peace and love and friendship and so we can be who we were meant to be, not what other people think we should be,” he said.

It isn’t yet known if Yakeleya will join the delegation, even though he is the Assembly of First Nations regional chief holding the residential schools portfolio.

Apology can be a start

Garry Bailey, president of the NWT Métis Nation wasn’t invited to the December meeting but hopes the Pope apologizes for the residential school system.

“I hope the Catholic Church admits to what they’ve done to the Aboriginal people. There should be a process to move forward to recognize Aboriginal people’s rights,” Bailey said.

“(The schools) were the beginning of genocide as far as I’m concerned. Our people were not given a proper education. They could only get an education up to Grade 4 and then they were married off. Our grandmothers were forced to marry French Métis or white people and when they did they lost their rights as First Nations people. An apology is a start. Canada has to to step up and face reconciliation in an equitable manner.”

One residential school survivor who is not seeking an apology from Rome is Richard Hardy, a former NWT lawyer who was born in Tulita, and served as president of the Fort Norman Métis Community and President of the Métis Association of the NWT.

He suffered sexual abuse while attending Grollier Hall in Inuvik in the early 1960s.

RELATED REPORTING: Métis man from Tulita writing book on Grollier Hall abuse

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In a letter sent to the Pope on Aug. 31, 2021, Hardy takes issue with the inclusion of the Métis National Council in the delegation to Rome but not other Métis organizations.

“The Métis National Council does not represent me and most other Métis from the Northwest Territories in Canada. (The) MNC wrongfully denies our existence as Métis,” he wrote.

“Notwithstanding what the MNC delegation may say to you about the Métis students that attended various Catholic educational institutions in Canada, my friends and I do not need and do not want an apology from you or anyone else in the church.”

Instead of an apology, Hardy would like the Pope to reach out to survivors and not the politicians who were invited to Rome.

The Pontiff should also admit to the Church’s knowledge about the history of abuse at residential schools and rebuke “naysayers” such as former Bishop Paul Piché of Mackenzie-Fort Smith who said in the book The Bishop Who Cared that some survivors are only seeking pay outs.

Hardy is calling for action following those acknowledgements and wants the church to ask for forgiveness from survivors and families.

“Then it becomes a matter for the survivors to decide, individually, whether or not to even respond to the Pope,” he said.