The Pope’s apology to Indigenous delegates for the involvement of some Catholics in residential schools has renewed focus on the Church’s role in the thousands of unmarked graves being reported.
Almost a week after Pope Francis delivered his April 1 apology, Dene National Chief and First Nations delegation leader Gerald Antoine reflects on the experience and what still needs to be done.
Most importantly, he hopes to call attention to the Doctrine of Discovery, an international law established by the Catholic Church that declared all land not populated by Christians “vacant.”
This law, never formally renounced in Canada, remains foundational to the legal definition of Crown Land.
This interview was recorded on April 6, 2022. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Caitrin Pilkington: What was your first impression when you sat down with the Pope?
Gerald Antoine: It’s like sitting down with an Elder. This is the second Pope that I went and had an audience with. The first one was 35 years ago, and his name was Pope John Paul II. But this was really exceptional.
When you were in the meeting, to what extent was it a discussion and to what extent was it just the Pope sort-of listening to what you all had to say?
The delegation, we were there collectively, as a family. And they really, truthfully, right from the heart, shared with Pope Francis. And when I was there and observing this encounter, the Pope was tentatively paying attention.
And with each of the different presenters, he was eye to eye. And that’s when he responded to what we had shared. So it was a really special, divine moment for all of us, that he made a commitment to visit our family here.
I understand your trip encompassed more than just the meeting. Tell me what else the delegation did while you were in Italy.
Well, we landed in Rome at nine o’clock in the morning, and we were advised by our hosts to rest because it had been a long eight-hour trip from overseas. However, I have a colleague that I went to school with 47 years ago at Lester B Pearson. And so when I called her and said, ‘look, I’m in town,’ she said, ‘when can I pick you up?’
I was expecting her to pull up in a car. But no, it wasn’t a car – it was a motorcycle. She handed me a helmet and said ‘hang on!’
For the next three hours we scooted around vehicles, through traffic, and stopped at various amazing places. And she allowed me to capture these amazing places with my camera. And then we were getting hungry, so we went to this special, magnificent place, it’s called Piazza Navona, with three fountains. And so we sat, and we ordered pizza. There’s no Pizza Hut over there. It was real, natural, thin crust pizza.
So I’m thankful for the way things line up. I’d like to thank all the family members who thought about us, prayed for us, and did ceremonies for us that really provided that extraordinary energy for us to truthfully be able to share our energy with the Holy Father, Pope Francis.
Gerald, do you mind me asking how old you are?
I’m 67. And I look forward to another 60 wonderful years in my future.
I’m just trying to imagine you zipping around the cobbled streets on a motorbike. Have you done anything like that before?
Not in Rome! The other thing was that some of the vehicles as we were going through traffic came extremely close to my knees, so I had to close my legs really tight and hang on.
That was really, really precious to me, because it helped me really get grounded and feel at home and welcomed by the people in Rome. And you know, having all these different, amazing ancient things that they have here, historically speaking, they all just flashed by me as we scooted around the various streets of Rome.
Italy is so beautiful. But in another sense, was there a feeling that… I mean, in a way, this place is the source of so much evil for your community and communities across Canada. You know, I was raised Catholic myself and I think even I would have complicated feelings seeing the Vatican in person and knowing all the atrocities that have come out of that building. Was there a heaviness about it all? Or were you consciously trying to focus more on the beauty?
I had been there before, 35 years ago, so I knew my way around. I was comfortable just being myself. But I also was focusing on my responsibilities as the leader of the delegation, I was focusing on supporting and assisting our family, our delegation of families. I just wanted to make sure they were taken care of.
But there was a certain heaviness as we were being toured, particularly in the Vatican, because it was really celebrating the victories of domination. Some people were really uncomfortable and didn’t want to finish the tour. But there were some grandmothers there that maintained that we could not sway from our mission, that we need to be there to share the voices of all Indian residential school students, and simply to tell the truth. And so I’d really like to thank our grandmothers for strengthening our backbone through this process and allowing us to be open and truthful and allowing the Pope to really reflect, from his heart, how things could be moved. So that created the divine moment I was telling you about.
I understand that during the tour some delegates saw objects from communities in Canada still on display. Did you see those as well?
That had some effect on us. That was part of this whole feeling of domination. One thing that is quite clear: when you look at residential schools, if you trace the seed back to where it started from, you will find the Doctrine of Discovery.
Do you believe in the sincerity of the Pope’s apology?
It’s a glimpse of hope. What we collectively advocated is that we’re only messengers, here to share the message of all Indian residential schools. I know the Pope has a background as a Jesuit scholar and that prior to our arrival he did his homework. I’m sure that, you know, he understands and sees the picture. And in the picture, you know, he is on one side, pointing his finger at us, and I see, you know, that we’re also pointing fingers. If you look at them separately, in the right circumstances, it’s easy to blame.
But if you bring them together, you have this image just like in the Sistine Chapel, where there is a picture painted by a man who laid on his back and pondered, he did the doodling you see on the wall, and as a result of the inspiration and the way he needs to illustrate something, he put this image of two people putting their fingertips towards one another. I see today as that moment when these two fingers finally touch and there is a glimmer of hope, a sigh of relief, and now we’re able to breathe – because up to this point, it seems we’ve been holding our breath. And now we’re letting out that little bit of air. I’m sure he did, too.
It’s like you’ve been hunting for years and you can’t find any tracks, and all of a sudden you see fresh tracks. And you know, you have that good feeling of anticipation, you’re hopeful. However, who is going to be the one that follows that track?
I understand the Pope has promised to come to Canada to repeat his apology on Canadian soil. Do you know when and where that will happen?
Well, it looks like it’s going to happen in summertime. I think, to be a little more specific, the end of July. As a family, we really specialize in opening our homes and sharing. However, the impact of residential school has really uprooted our family and we need to come together to sort it out.
Some people have criticized the wording of the apology, and they feel that the Pope specifically avoided apologizing on behalf of the Catholic Church as a whole. What do you think about that?
It’s a start. It’s still a good start. It’s more important that the walk of the talk occurs.
What would that walk look like to you? Or do you have to just see it to know it?
This visit. I think if this visit happens, we can discuss further opportunities. Our family needs to have a conversation about that.
From what I heard, Rome was not built overnight, so this isn’t going to happen overnight either. There has got to be involvement and participation to look at what we need to support and assist our family to strengthen themselves to move forward in a good way. And doing that will really help humanity as a whole. So it’s really something special.
The question that I was prepared to ask you next was about what’s next for reconciliation between Indigenous peoples and the Church, but it sounds like the answer to that question is this meeting in the summer and the work that needs to be done to prepare for it. Is that true? Or is there something else that you’d have in mind?
The object of their whole program was genocide, it was to kill the Indian in the child. And then on the other hand, there’s a book they carry around that says thou shalt not kill. So that’s something that needs to be cleared up, and it’s going to be an ongoing process.
However, the apology is not good unless the seed is destroyed. So the real need is to have the Doctrine of Discovery revoked completely. That is one specific part of the equation that needs to be done away with.
I can’t think of another time in history when a delegation travelled to a place that basically organized their genocide and asked them for an apology. I think it’s a pretty rare thing. Was there part of you that still feels anger at these people and what they represent? I think many people would have understood if you travelled all the way there just to spit in his face, but to ask for an apology… I think there was a lot of grace in offering him that chance. Why did you offer that grace?
I thank you for that question. I think that, you know, as human beings, we’ve got to make sure that in moving ahead, we’re balanced. And this really helps us in the stability of our family. The things that we do affect the whole of humanity, and so we need to reflect on these things. This whole thing has opened up a lot of possibilities and opportunities, just with that initial step.
Are there any other commitments you’ve received from the rest of the Catholic Church or from the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops? Is there anything else that they have pledged to do in light of this apology?
Not yet. There are many more things that have to be done. These are just fresh tracks, and we must continue to follow them.
The Indian Residential School Survivors and Family Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day at 1-866-925-4419.