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Antoine, new Dene national chief, prepares to lead Vatican trip


Newly elected Dene National Chief Gerald Antoine is set to lead an Indigenous delegation to meet the Pope at the Vatican at the end of this month.

Chief Antoine, who defeated incumbent Norman Yakeleya in December, assumes Yakeleya’s role both as a regional Assembly of First Nations chief and, consequently, as head of the Vatican delegation.

Though attempts to reach Antoine in the past week were unsuccessful – the Dene Nation said he was travelling – he was quoted by the AFN as saying Indigenous delegates would act as “messengers for all survivors” of the residential school system, at the heart of which lay the Catholic Church.

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“We seek acknowledgement of the truth, an acknowledgement of where the permissions directed the responsibility for the destruction caused against our peoples and children,” a news release last week quoted Antoine as saying.

“Meeting with Pope Francis is an important step as we continue to address the Catholic Church’s culpability about genocide and complicity in what many First Nations children experienced in the institutions.

“It was responsible for managing, including in many instances, the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual violence inflicted on our children.”

The trip – originally planned for late 2021 but postponed after the onset of Covid-19’s Omicron wave – is scheduled to last from March 28 until April 1. The meeting with Pope Francis is planned for March 31.

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‘For the benefit of all Nations’

Taylor Behn-Tsakoza of the Fort Nelson First Nation will be among the 13 delegates, acting as the delegation’s youth representative.

“I’m feeling a little nervous,” Behn-Tsakoza told the Alaska Highway News earlier this month. “Getting to speak with the Pope is a big deal.”

Behn-Tsakoza, the BC Assembly of First Nations’ youth co-chair, holds a bachelor’s degree in health and physical education. Her education has included Indigenous studies in Australia and Hawaii.

Taylor Behn-Tsakoza. Photo: BC Assembly of First Nations

She said she hears from Indigenous people who survived Canada’s residential school system and feel torn over reconciliation – some outright rejecting the Christianity imposed by the Catholic Church, others finding solace in their faith despite the harms done by the system.

“Some of our community have asked to have rosaries blessed and still follow the Catholic Church,” said Behn-Tsakoza. “It’s been a juggle to balance that experience and point of view, to compare it to other survivors who don’t follow that religion and have a different opinion on the Church.

“When some people left residential school, they really found a different way of life in that religion, and other people abandoned it altogether and went back to our traditional spiritual ways.”

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, in a statement, said it remained “committed to walking toward healing and reconciliation and very much look forward to the opportunity for Indigenous Elders, knowledge keepers, residential school survivors, and youth to meet with Pope Francis.”

Behn-Tsakoza said she has no specific ask of Pope Francis. Meeting with him, she says, means not just advocating for her community and northern BC’s First Nations, but for all Indigenous people living in Canada.

“It’s for the benefit of all Nations,” she said.

The AFN said the delegation as a whole will have specific requests, starting with a request that the Pope deliver an apology in Canada.

That apology, AFN said, should include “an acknowledgement of the claim by the Roman Catholic Church related to the right of domination over everyone and everything and its role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical and sexual violence of First Nations in Catholic-run residential institutions.”

The delegation will also ask that the Pope “repeal the Papal Bull of 1493 issued by his predecessor, Pope Alexander, and all other Papal Bulls that enshrined the doctrine of discovery that led to the genocide of Indigenous peoples in all regions of the world.”

Tom Summer, an Alaska Highway News Local Journalism Initiative reporter, contributed reporting.

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