Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya says a delegation heading to the Vatican City in December will seek a formal apology from the Pope – and ask him to make that apology in Canada.
An apology is being sought for the Roman Catholic Church’s decades-long role in running Canada’s residential schools, to which many Indigenous children were forcibly removed.
The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops issued an apology in September for the suffering endured by Indigenous people. In 2005, the Church promised $25 million to residential school survivors – little of which has reportedly since been delivered.
Chief Yakeleya, speaking to reporters on Thursday, said he would be part of a First Nations, Métis, and Inuit delegation invited to meet Pope Francis in Rome between December 17 and 20.
He said that delegation would ask the Pope to apologize and, if that comes to pass, ask for such an apology to be delivered in Canada.
“We seek to hear the words of an apology. We seek to hear these words on our lands, by the Pope,” Yakeleya said.
“We seek justice. It is only then that we can begin walking truly on the healing path of reconciliation.”
The size of the delegation is to be confirmed and Yakeleya does not yet know if he personally will receive the opportunity to address the Pope. The feedback of Dene Elders is being sought in case he has the chance to convey their views.
“What words would I say to him? I would want to say what happened to me and my family, that the Roman Catholic Church did wrong, and ask him for his apology to my mother, my grandmothers, grandfathers,” Yakeleya said.
“Only a certain amount of delegates are going to be in the room with the Pope.”
The Dene National Chief said he wants to hear that the Pope, “on behalf of all the Roman Catholic dioceses, is sorry. Truly sorry. And that he now wants to walk on a path of healing with us and to make things right, and to help the Indigenous people to be respected and recognized for who we are and where we come from.”
Yakeleya stressed the delegation does not know if the Pope will agree to apologize, and that is considered step one before asking for an apology to be delivered in Canada.
The third step, if such a trip is agreed, is to decide where in Canada that apology would come.
“Residential school sites are spread right across Canada. We’re still in discussion as to where in Canada. Each regional chief would want His Holiness to come to their area, their territory,” said Yakeleya.
“There are some very significant places such as Kamloops, Saskatchewan, Alberta, even in the North. That’s something we’re still working on.”
Yakeleya acknowledged there remains risk associated with travel through major centres to the Vatican City during the Covid-19 pandemic.
He said the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops was assisting with arrangements to ensure the trip can be made safely.
“It’s very fluid. We have to be very adaptable,” he said.
“We have strong faith that it will come to fruition.”
Two decades since a Pope visited
An apology from the Pope would fulfil a call to action issued by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Call to Action 58 calls on the Pope to issue an apology to survivors, their families, and communities for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children in Catholic-run residential schools.
Last month, Lila Bruyere – a member of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation’s Survivor Circle – was quoted by the centre as saying: “People still hesitate to use the word genocide, but for those who lived through it as children, it could not be anything else. The importance of the Pope issuing an apology directly to survivors on the very land where the atrocities were committed cannot be understated.”
Yakeleya said there had been “six long years” since that call to action was published.
Canada has not been visited by a Pope since John Paul II, who made three trips to the country in 1984, 1987, and 2002.
He had been scheduled to visit the Northwest Territories in 1984 but this was cancelled, leading instead to the Pope making a detour from the United States to visit Fort Simpson in 1987. He then attended World Youth Day 2002 in Toronto.
So far, Pope Francis has given no indication that a trip to Canada is on the horizon. In 2019, the president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops was quoted by The Catholic Register as saying “there are those who are very much in favour of inviting” the Pope, “but the Holy Father just doesn’t go for a visit.”
“Now, the Roman Catholic Church has to listen to Indigenous people and understand our worldview and our way of looking at life,” said Yakeleya.
“That’s really the end goal, so they know we all come from one Creator. We’re all children of God. And we also have holy people, we also have prophets, we also have our knowledge of where we come from.”