Dene National Chief appeals to Trudeau, Simon over papal visit ‘disregard’


Dene National Chief Gerald Antoine has asked the Prime Minister and Governor General for support over what he says is a “pattern of disregard” being shown by papal visit organizers.

The Pope is due in Canada next week and widely expected to address requests from an Indigenous peoples that he apologize, on Canadian soil, for the Catholic Church’s role in residential schools and generations of associated trauma.

However, in a letter to Justin Trudeau and Mary Simon, Antoine – in his role as Assembly of First Nations regional chief – and National Chief RoseAnne Archibald said First Nations had been moved to “the periphery of the planning process.”

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In the letter, the two state: “This visit and apology has evolved to be more for the benefit of Canadian Catholic parishioners and the global Christian community and less about actual moves for reparations and reconciliation with the First Nation community that was harmed by institutions of assimilation and genocide.”

Antoine and Archibald state the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and the church community have been driving forces behind the Pope’s visit, rather than Indigenous peoples.

“We are concerned that our community members, particularly survivors, are being re-victimized in this unilateral process,” the letter, dated July 21 and published to the AFN website, continues.

“The anticipated apology potentially represents a monumental moment for us and may serve to help put our shared collective pain behind us. What we need to do, then, is to acknowledge it together and work together in a spirit of true collaboration on the healing path forward.

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“In writing to express our concern, we are actually reaching out for your allyship with the church community to ensure that our future relationship is based in mutual respect, trust, and cooperation.”

Visit begins on Sunday

Antoine led a First Nations delegation to the Vatican earlier this year to meet with the Pope, who subsequently issued a qualified apology for the role of Catholics in the residential school system.

The Pope arrives in Edmonton on Sunday morning, July 24. He will hold a papal mass at the city’s Commonwealth Stadium on Tuesday, with some NWT residents travelling to attend, including a number of Dene leaders. Meetings with Indigenous peoples will take place on Monday.

Pope Francis will spend Wednesday and Thursday in Quebec City, then Friday in Iqaluit before returning to the Vatican. The Iqaluit stop will include a private meeting with former residential school students.

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Various events will be streamed live with interpretation in a number of Indigenous languages, including Dene Zhatié and Inuktitut.

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops has taken a leading role in organization of the trip, issuing daily bulletins to reporters and creating a website for the visit titled Walking Together.

Archbishop Richard Smith of Edmonton, the visit’s general coordinator, said in a video message earlier in the year: “We have a wonderful team in place to work on this, each one very dedicated to making this visit a success.”

Smith added: “I look forward to continued collaboration with many Indigenous partners as we move forward in the planning. I feel especially blessed by the many good relationships that are being forged. Their wisdom and counsel will play an important role in giving shape to the various encounters with Pope Francis that will take place during his time among us.”

On its website for the visit, the conference of bishops states: “Indigenous peoples have been engaged throughout the planning for the papal visit to Canada. These conversations began with delegates preparing to visit the Vatican in March/April 2022 and continued during their private meetings with Pope Francis as well as ongoing dialogue with a working group of Canadian bishops. Indigenous partners have also been involved in advance visits to possible sites for the papal visit. With confirmation of dates and general locations of the visit, the focus, themes, and programming of the visit will also be shaped in dialogue with Indigenous partners.”