“I needed to be here”: Indigenous delegates speak their truths | Indigenous Rights News

Disclaimer: The story below contains details about residential schools that may be upsetting. The Crisis Line for Residential School Survivors and Families of Canada is available 24 hours a day at 1-866-925-4419.

Rome, Italy – Representatives of the Métis, Inuit and First Nations of Canada traveled to Rome this week at the invitation of Pope Francis to discuss the impact of residential schools in Canada.

Federally funded institutions operated from the late 1800s until 1997 with the goal of forcibly assimilating Aboriginal children into mainstream European culture.

More than 150,000 Indigenous children across the country attended schools and suffered physical, sexual, emotional, verbal and spiritual abuse. Thousands of people died while they were there.

The Roman Catholic Church operated more than 60% of the schools and despite multiple requests for apologies from survivors, the Church has yet to issue one.

During their meetings in the Italian capital, the indigenous delegation – made up of community leaders, residential school survivors and young people – spoke to the pope about the horrors of the residential school system and asked him to come to Canada to apologize for indigenous lands.

Al Jazeera spoke to five delegates about the importance of the visit and what they hope to achieve.

Norman Yakeleya, Dene, First Nations delegate, survivor of Grollier Hall residential school in Inuvik, Northwest Territories

Former Dene Nation National Chief Norman Yakeleya is a residential school survivor [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]

Yakeleya was taken from his parents and sent to boarding school when he was five years old. He was detained there until his late teens and says he suffered verbal, physical, spiritual and sexual abuse.

“We paid the price as survivors, and my mother and all mothers paid the price to send their children to school.

“At the time, we didn’t talk about it. We didn’t feel and we certainly didn’t trust anyone. Everything was kept secret under the coat of the Roman Catholic Church because these people [weren’t supposed to] do these things, we were told. They worked for God. So we were living in our own prisons with our own wounds and not knowing what to do and how to say things.

“When you are hurt, especially through sexual abuse, as a young boy, you don’t talk about it. There is a lot of shame. How can another man do this to you? And then try to live a good life as the Bible teaches us? How can you forgive this?

“Sometimes it seems there is no hope. But I can live another day here.

“’This too shall pass,’ he says in the Bible. The Bible also says ask and you will receive, seek and you will find, knock and it will be opened to you. We asked the Pope [to hear us]now we have received this invitation, now we are going to knock on its door, and it will be opened to us.

Natan Obed, President of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, Survivor of Intergenerational Residential Schools

Nathan Obed
Obed is president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, which represents 60,000 Inuit in Canada [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]

“I’ve always had mixed feelings about all the work we’ve done on this.

“It’s essential for reconciliation, healing and justice, but it’s also something that is sometimes uncomfortable, because the relationship between, whether it’s the Catholic Church or the Anglican Church or other organizations denominational, and the Inuit was not good in time.

“There are many who are still unwilling to forgive or partner with the Catholic Church or other institutions, so we are toeing that line about who we are bringing into this conversation and how much time we are spending on it. . I’m glad I was able to highlight the Inuit, but it’s something quite stressful.

“I had a very positive feeling about the genuine nature of this commitment. Now where we go from here is murkier.

“We believe that the pope has an authority that goes far beyond what anyone else in the world has. So, we asked him to intervene and for Father Rivoire [a fugitive Oblate priest, now 93, who is accused of sexual assault against numerous Inuit children] to voluntarily travel to Canada to face charges. If this does not happen, we have asked the Pope to intervene with the French government to try to find a way for Father Rivoire to be tried in France.

“The pope explained how unacceptable this was. He also explained that he never wanted to see sexual abuse from anyone connected to the church ever again. It was good to hear him speak so clearly about what he believes in and how categorically untrue what happened to the Inuit. I think the Inuit who were in the room were very grateful to hear that from the Pope and I’m sure as we go through this file his personal attention to this particular part of the residential school experience and the effects cascading negatives and this lack of justice is going to be an integral part of our obtaining justice.

Lorelei Williams, Salish/Coast Salish of Skatin Nations/Sts’Ailes, Survivor of Intergenerational Residential Schools

Lorelei Williams
Lorelei Williams says she felt she needed to be in Rome to see what was happening with her own eyes [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]

Williams’ parents, now deceased, were survivors of St Mary’s Indian Residential School in Mission, British Columbia.

“What’s happening here in Rome right now, I can’t believe it’s really happening. It’s something I needed to see with my own eyes. For the children, for the missing and murdered [Indigenous women and girls] and for my parents, I just felt like I needed to be here.

“I totally feel like the government killed her [my mother]. The government killed all our people. I say this because any aboriginal survivor who has died is because of this residential school trauma.

“I am grateful to see what comes out of it, what comes out of it in the media. It opens people’s eyes more. But I have trust issues with the government, I have trust issues with the churches. I still have hope, but I won’t be shocked if nothing comes of it [from the church].”

Cassidy Caron, President of the Métis National Council

Cassidy Caron, President of the Métis National Council
Caron says Métis elders and residential school survivors told him ‘the greatest gifts we can bring to Pope Francis are our stories and our truth’ [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]

“I am here to represent our people, their perspectives and the diversity of perspectives of the Métis Nation.

“It’s been a whirlwind. I keep telling everyone it feels like we’ve been here two weeks, but it’s only been, so far, three days. I think it’s a testament to how busy we are and how much work we do during the time we’re here.

“We have worked with our elders and survivors who have told us that the greatest gifts we can bring to Pope Francis are our stories and our truth. And during the meeting with Pope Francis, that is what we did.

“Our people have not received the recognition or compensation they deserve. And so, we were able to share this and talk about our vision for moving forward with truth, reconciliation, healing and justice.

“Regardless of the outcome of this trip, we now know that we have marching orders from members of our community regarding what is needed. And we can start working towards that, no matter who joins us on our journey. It would be wonderful if the Catholic Church wanted to join us on this journey. But for me, I want to be able to make a difference and create a better future for our community.

Taylor Behn-Tsakoza, Fort Nelson First Nation Member, Assembly of First Nations Youth Representative

Taylor Behn-Tsakozo
Taylor Behn-Tsakozo says she strongly feels the spirits of her ancestors guide her [Amber Bracken/Al Jazeera]

“Being in Rome for the first time was exciting, but being part of the delegation really makes the experience more meaningful and worthwhile and all those things for me.

“It’s hard to explain, but I could just feel it in my heart: when I was walking, every step I took felt like, you know, it felt like someone was helping me. Then being in this room in front of the pope, he seemed to recognize and respond to what we were saying.

“It’s not just a check mark with reconciliation. It’s just another step. And I think when we get home, that’s the most important thing… when we get home, [that we] continue to hold the Catholic Church accountable.

“And there is also a personal journey and healing towards reconciliation that we have to deal with ourselves because all the healing that has to be done to go through this journey of justice and reconciliation.”

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