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Wilton Littlechild has spent months preparing for what could be the “biggest birthday present” of his life.
On Friday, April 1, as he turns 78, the lawyer and activist from Ermineskin Cree Nation will take part in a private audience with Pope Francis as part of the long-awaited Indigenous delegation from Canada to the Vatican.
“It will be very emotional I’m sure for me, for a number of reasons, not just because it’s my birthday,” the Alberta representative told Global News in the days before his departure. “To finally see the day that we sit by each other — let’s think big.”
Read more: From healing to disappointment, here’s what a papal apology could mean for residential school survivors
The birthday gift, he explained, will be an eventual apology from the Pope for the role of the Roman Catholic Church in Canada’s harrowing residential school system. For decades, survivors have said that atonement must take place in their homeland.
“This invitation to go to Rome cannot be and must not be a substitute for him to come to Canada,” said Littlechild, who attended three institutions of assimilation over 14 years.
On Sunday, 32 First Nations, Inuit and Métis representatives touched down in Rome for a week of meetings with the pope, arranged by the Holy See and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. The trip was initially scheduled for last December but was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many international news crews assigned to cover the historic visit trickled into the Vatican last week, necessitating capacity restrictions in the rooms where delegates will hold press briefings.
The esteemed group of chiefs, survivors, elders, knowledge keepers and youth carries an enormous responsibility — sharing the stories and impact of more than 150 years of cultural genocide through 139 church- and state-run institutions across the country.
“It’s an immense task,” said Cassidy Caron, delegate and president of the Métis National Council. “How do we represent a nation to the best of our ability with eight people?”
Each group — Métis, First Nations and Inuit — will have one hour with Pope Francis before meeting him as a collective for a final hour on April 1. Within that timeframe, they must also communicate their expectations for the Catholic Church’s role in reconciliation moving forward.
Much attention has been paid to calls for a formal apology from the Pope. If offered, it would likely take place on a possible “apostolic journey to Canada” after the delegation concludes.
The apology, however, is only one of several priorities.
Delegates will also request that the Holy Father rescind centuries-old papal bulls (or decrees) that enshrine the Doctrine of Discovery and concept of ‘terra nullius’ — legal frameworks for early Christian explorers that gave them permission to conquer, displace and enslave non-Christian Indigenous Peoples.
They will ask the Holy See to hand over documents pertaining to residential schools and commit to a sustained relationship with Indigenous Peoples that includes additional funds for programs focused on reconciliation and healing.
“I’m thinking about the future and thinking that I am the future, that this is important,” said Taylor Behn-Tsakoza, a member of Fort Nelson First Nation in northeastern B.C. and the delegation’s youth representative.
“It’s not begging for an apology, it’s not to try and let the church off from what they’ve done, it’s to continue having this conversation. If it weren’t for these conversations, we wouldn’t be able to move forward.”
Pope Francis is the head of a city-state and of more than 1.3 billion Catholics in five continents. Many of the delegates are also elected state leaders.
“It is one thing (for the Pope) to come and apologize, but I think that we’re really also carrying a message of diplomacy for the Catholic Church,” said Quebec representative Mandy Gull-Masty, grand chief of the Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee, in a March 24 press conference.
“I do hope that Pope Francis, as a spiritual leader, will set the tone within the Catholic Church that when historical injustices are carried out, it is the obligation of the leader to address those things, to release those people from the hurt, harm and trauma that they continue to carry.“
The demographic of delegates is what sets this trip to the Vatican apart from others, said church historian Massimo Faggioli – while popes past and present have met with survivors of abuse, this week, Francis is meeting the leaders of nations.
“It’s an entire people that seeks an acknowledgment of the suffering of the history, so it is really something different from previous meetings between Pope Francis, or even Pope Benedict when he travelled to Australia, or to Malta or to Ireland,” Faggioli explained.
“This is something different because one of the new meanings of this crisis in the last few years is understanding the abuse crisis in the context of the global history of Catholicism as part of colonialism.”
Faggioli, a professor of religious studies and theology at Pennsylvania’s Villanova University, said the delegation could catalyze a change in symbolism for the Vatican, which has long been associated with colonization and white supremacy.
The next Jubilee will draw pilgrims to the Vatican from around the world, he explained, and while many would normally come seeking acknowledgment and bearing gifts of money, the 2025 celebration may take on more of a “penitential” tone.
“This meeting with the First Nations could be one more step in this making of the Vatican — not the symbol of indifference, of callousness — but the opposite, to be a place of learning and of growth for this community of believers.”
Read more: Mapping the missing: Former residential school sites in Canada and the search for unmarked graves
While the pandemic has stifled tourism to Rome, St. Peter’s Square buzzed with thousands of visitors from around the world on the weekend of the delegation’s arrival. On Tuesday, the delegates will join the crowds, viewing some of the city’s most historic sites in private tours.
Richard Smith, Archbishop of Edmonton and one of six delegates from the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, said his wish is that this week produces hope not only for Indigenous Peoples but all people.
“We speak of the need for reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples, which is obviously correct, but there’s need for reconciliation everywhere right now,” he told Global News.
“If that’s the need, let’s go to the Pope and trust that he’s going to say the right thing.”
The Catholic Church operated nearly three-quarters of Canada’s residential schools seizing more than 150,000 Indigenous children from their homes between the 1830s and mid-1990s. Countless thousands were subjected to gratuitous physical, sexual and spiritual violence by priests and nuns. Many children were also starved in scientific experiments on malnutrition.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has confirmed the identities of more than 4,000 children who died in the assimilation institutions, but as nations across the country continue to detect unmarked burial sites on their former grounds, the estimated number of Le Estcwéy̓ — the missing children — is growing.
The pope will hear many stories of trauma, pain and survival in the coming days, but as the delegates recharge and prepare to share them, Littlechild said he might exclude his own.
A commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and former grand chief of the Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations, he said the details of his institutional experience are already “very public.”
Instead, Littlechild said he will ask Pope Francis to endorse the 10 Principles of Reconciliation published by the TRC in 2015, and the findings and Calls to Action of the National Inquiry Into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
It will be his fifth visit to the Vatican and his second time meeting the Holy Father. In 2016, he and 10 other Indigenous leaders travelled to ask for an apology and the revocation of three papal bulls.
Of the trip now underway, Littlechild said, “it’s historic in a sense that he has never given a delegation as much as time as he has to us, whether they were presidents or heads of state or ambassadors.”
The Inuit and Métis delegates will meet Pope Francis on Monday, and the First Nations’ audience takes place Thursday. Around 175 people — including friends, family, staff and supporters — will attend the much-anticipated collective meeting on Friday.
The Canadian Council of Catholic Bishops is paying for the delegation at an estimated cost of $350,000 — funds that are separate from the $30-million commitment it made to support reconciliation last September.
“A lot of good things are happening across the country with regard to reconciliation,” said Littlechild. “Thankfully, Canadians didn’t wait for the Pope to come here — they went ahead on their own designing for themselves.”
The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line (1-800-721-0066) is available 24 hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience.