Although Norman Yakeleya’s view of Catholicism was deeply coloured by his childhood at Grollier Hall residential school in Inuvik, he says he has come to appreciate many teachings of the Bible.

In particular, he says he is fond of the passage Matthew 7:7: “Ask, and you shall be given; Seek, and you shall find it; Knock, and it shall be opened unto you.”

“This is what we have done,” he says.

Yakeleya, a former Dene national chief who was born and raised in Tulita, was one of the First Nations delegates who met with Pope Francis at the Vatican in Rome last week to seek an apology for the enduring damage of the residential school system.

On Friday, the pope formally apologized for the role some Catholics played in Canada’s residential school system and its traumatic legacy. He said he felt “sorrow and shame for the role that a number of Catholics, particularly those with educational responsibilities, have had in all these things that wounded you, and the abuses you suffered, and the lack of respect shown for your identity, your culture, and even your spiritual values.

“I ask for God’s forgiveness, and I want to say to you with all my heart: I am very sorry,” said the pontiff.

Yakeleya had the chance to meet Pope Francis during the last of several meetings on Friday, April 1.

“He is a very special man. He’s a very kind man,” says Yakeleya. “And by hearing his words and listening to him on his land, and acknowledging his apology and his views of the church and the residential schools, he’s spoken the truth.”

“By the pope saying, ‘I am very sorry,’ he has taken the shame back, and it has lifted off my mind and my shoulders. That is not my shame to carry. I’m not to be shameful of who I am, where I come from.”

Dene National Chief Gerald Antoine, who led the delegation to Rome, was not available for comment in time for publication. However, in a press conference after the final meeting with the pope, he called the apology “long overdue,” but said the Indigenous delegation “accepted the apology as a gesture of good faith that he will come to our home, and to visit with our families.”

The pope has said he will visit Canada sometime this summer, although no date has been set. Yakeleya says the Dene, Métis and Inuit nations will work with the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) to further advance reconciliation between Canada’s Indigenous peoples and the Catholic Church. He also said he hopes the CCCB will listen to Canada’s Indigenous peoples, and “to work with them and to get healing centres, treatment centres and to support us to live according to our own values and principles.”

“The seeds of forgiveness, the seeds of reconciliation have been planted,” he says. “We’ve got to work the soil and come out with good things, and pull the weeds of the residential school negativity and put them in the past where they belong. And that is not an easy task, but we can do it together.

“I would hope the pope would come to my mother’s grave and say he is sorry to her for what the Roman Catholic Church has done to her children by attending the residential school.”

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