Chief Wilton Littlechild spent 14 years of his life in three different residential schools in Alberta.
Born in Hobbema, now named Maskwacis, Littlechild went on to become a lawyer, member of Parliament and a commissioner with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
On Friday he leaves for Rome seeking an apology from the Pope.
“It will be very emotional I’m sure for me for a number of reasons,” Littlechild said.
“I heard many people in tears and in anger sometimes say, ‘I want to hear three words from the Pope so I can begin my healing journey. So I can heal myself from the trauma I’ve been living with for 50 years and 60 years.'”
The visit to the Vatican was supposed to happen in December 2021 but the trip was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Between 25 to 30 Indigenous people are expected to be part of the delegation scheduled to meet with Pope Francis.
It’s expected that many will be pushing for the Pope to deliver an apology over the Catholic Church’s role in Canada’s residential school system.
READ MORE: ‘The story was hidden’: How residential school graves shocked and shaped Canada in 2021
Bishop William McGrattan of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Calgary will be headed to Rome on Saturday. He said he hopes Pope Francis will stand in solidarity with Canadian bishops who issued an apology last year over the Catholic Church’s role in the residential school system.
“I understand that the words of apology and expressing sorrow is something that’s very important, and we have also shared that with the Holy Father,” he said.
“I hope and I know that he will listen, and I believe that he will respond in a way that will assist them in this journey of healing. He knows that it is very important.”
Littlechild was also named as a director of the Catholic Church’s Indigenous reconciliation fund.
Canadian bishops made a commitment to raise $30 million in up to five years.
“I know it will help many, many people who are suffering either through poverty or homelessness because of the residential schools,” Littlechild said.
McGrattan said it’s important for the church to respond in ways that are tangible by establishing this Indigenous reconciliation fund.
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“Many of the projects will be tied to the truth and reconciliation areas of healing, families and communities, language reclamation and culture,” he said. “Also in terms of making sure there are appropriate opportunities for youth to dialogue with elders about their culture and spirituality.”
Pope Francis has agreed to visit Canada to help reconciliation efforts. McGrattan said he hopes to get some clarity as to when that visit is going to take place.
On April 1, Métis, Inuit and First Nations delegates have a group meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican after separately addressing the leader of the Catholic Church earlier in the week.
It will be a memorable birthday for Littlechild. April 1 is the Cree elder’s 78th birthday.
“Let’s think big,” Littlechild said. “Let’s invite the Pope to come to Canada. Let’s ask him to apologize, and when that happens, it will be the biggest birthday present in my lifetime.
“We have not had the opportunity to forgive. That is an important part because the next step is healing. After that, people will feel a sense of justice, and then you can talk about reconciliation.”
Littlechild of Ermineskin Cree Nation, as well as Métis elder and Grande Prairie resident Angie Crerar, are among the delegates from Alberta, along with Gary Gagnon, an Alberta Métis delegate.
Survivors of the residential school system can get support through Canada’s Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program 24-7 crisis line by calling 1-866-925-4419.