Former NWT premier remembers role as ‘architect’ of papal visit

With an Indigenous delegation planning to meet Pope Francis next month, a former Northwest Territories premier is remembering his role in securing a historic visit with a Pope.

First Nations, Métis, and Inuit delegates will travel to the Vatican in Rome, in late March, according to a joint news release from the Canadian Catholic Bishops, Assembly of First Nations, Métis National Council, and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. 

The delegation had originally planned to make the trip in December, until concerns regarding the Omicron variant of Covid-19 forced the trip to be postponed


The Tuesday statement says “the health and safety of all delegates” remains a priority.

“In the weeks ahead, we will monitor conditions leading up to the revised travel dates and continue our dialogue with delegates, public health officials, as well as the relevant government and international authorities, traveling only when we feel it is safe to do so.”

The trip to the Vatican is intended to precede the Pope’s planned visit to Canada during which Indigenous leaders have said they will seek a formal apology for the Roman Catholic Church’s decades-long role in running Canada’s residential schools. When that trip will take place has not been confirmed.

A ‘singular spokesman’

A Pope has not visited Canada since John Paul II, who made three trips to the country in 1984, 1987, and 2002. He was the first Pope to set foot on Canadian soil.

While the Pope’s scheduled trip to the NWT in 1984 was cancelled due to weather, in 1987, he made a detour from the United States to visit Fort Simpson.


Former NWT premier Stephen Kakfwi said he thinks people have forgotten he was “the architect” of the papal visits in the 1980s.

Kakfwi, then president of the Dene Nation, said constitutional talks were underway and he wanted to give national chiefs “a world stage” to ask Pope John Paul II for “his support and endorsement to put a self-government clause in the constitution of Canada.”

Kakfwi said he received direction from David Ahenakew, then national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, “to represent all the chiefs in dealing with the Vatican to secure a visit” with the Pope.  

Kakfwi made two trips to the Vatican — first in 1984 and again in 1987 — as the “singular spokesman” with a written invitation that he planned to deliver directly to the Pope. 


“Didn’t give it to the bishops, didn’t give it to anybody. Just said, ‘we’re coming here to give a personal invitation,’” Kakfwi recalled.

Kakfwi said he believes in small delegations and doesn’t understand the purpose of a large delegation since “not everyone will get the chance to speak.” 

In 1987, he said they did something “very different at that time,” by making it “just for Indigenous people.”

“We invited the governor general but not the prime minister. We also said we didn’t want the bishops to be there and we didn’t want the bishops to take away from the fact that this was specifically for Indigenous people only.”

Despite pushback from the church, who insisted the trip be called a pastoral visit, Kakfwi said the meeting was political. 

“It wasn’t just an apology for things. He actually didn’t apologize for anything,” Kakfwi said.

“But he gave a ringing endorsement for self-government, for an equitable land base, and access to resources, to maintain and uphold the dignity of all Indigenous peoples.”

‘I need a commitment’

With another visit to Canada pending, discussions of the value in a papal apology have resurfaced.

Some residential school survivors have said an apology will not suffice without accountability for the abuse suffered in residential schools across the country, and an admission of wrongdoing on the part of the Roman Catholic Church. 

Kakfwi shares a similar sentiment.

“I personally don’t need it, I don’t believe it,” he said of an apology. “I need a commitment.”

Kakfiw said he would like to see the church pay the money they have promised to residential school survivors, along with the release of all requested documents.

“Once we start to have those, where we don’t have to take the church to court, we don’t have to embarrass them into making concessions, that’s what I think we need before,” he said. “Then at the end, if they want to say ‘and yes, we are sorry,’ they can throw that in too.”