Warning: This story deals with disturbing subject matter that may upset and trigger some readers. Discretion is advised.
Outside the arrivals terminal at Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci International Airport, Métis Elder Angie Crerar stood up from her wheelchair right away when asked for an interview and a photo.
With a warm smile on her face, the 85-year-old residential school survivor said she was “totally humbled” to have two Métis national presidents standing next to her, and pulled them in tightly to be part of the conversation on camera.
“Unbelievable. I don’t know, I’m in a daze,” she said of her meeting with Pope Francis on Monday. “Very emotional, that’s very important to us and to my life too.”
On Sunday morning, 32 Indigenous representatives arrived in Rome for a week of meetings with the Pope, arranged by the Holy See and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. They flew nearly nine hours from Montreal, accompanied by a support team of friends, family, community members and staff.
They travelled in buses to their hotel, about 20 minutes from the Vatican, and spent the afternoon recharging for what is expected to be — like Crerar said — a “very emotional” week.
“I think it’s really important that everyone, not only our citizens, understand the significance of actually being able to bring our elders to Rome,” said Poitras.
“You know, I think about the times I’ve spent with Angie and the stories she’s told. What her wish has always been, is to have people understand what actually went on so that they can move past it and get to a better place.”
Shortly after the delegates landed, Pope Francis delivered his weekly Angelus devotion to a crowd of thousands at St. Peter’s Square. Some waved rainbow flags and others waved the yellow and blue flag of Ukraine. He urged political leaders to end the violence in the Eastern European country, calling war a “barbarous and sacrilegious act.”
He also greeted congregants in the square from Rome and elsewhere in the world, giving special mention to the visiting faithful from Mexico, Madrid and Lyon, a student group from Spain, and runners in the Rome Marathon on Sunday.
He did not mention Canada or the Indigenous delegation.
More than 150,000 Indigenous children attended Canada’s 139 residential schools, described by some as institutions of assimilation. Their purpose, writes the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, was to “kill the Indian in the child.”
Thousands of children were beaten, raped and stripped of their culture by the priests and nuns charged with their care, studies say, and while estimates range between 4,000 and 6,000, the true number of Indigenous children who died is unknown.
Crear, who was born in Fort Resolution, N.W.T., was taken on a plane by the RCMP as a girl and spent 10 years in residential school. She said she was given the number ‘6,’ endured beatings, and was told she was a savage and a half-breed.
“We have a lot of work to do within the Métis Nation to really make sure that we have all of our stories captured so that we know the truth of what happened to Métis children in residential schools,” said Cassidy Caron, president of the Métis National Council.
“We’re really looking forward to sharing those stories with the Pope so that he understands there are three distinct Indigenous peoples in Canada, and that we share a history, but we all have very unique experiences.
“By bringing Angie and our elders together to the Pope to share their stories, it will be one really powerful moment.”
The Métis delegation of eight people meets the pontiff for one hour on Monday.
Asked what she would say to one of the most influential men in the world the next morning, Crerar choked up and said Pope Francis must understand that delegates are doing this for “our kids,” and that she is “no longer lost.”
“Nobody wanted us,” she said firmly, still holding Poitras and Caron. “I got news for them — I have an identity. I belong to the Métis Nation of Alberta and I have a wonderful life.”
Crerar is the president of Métis Local 1990 Grande Prairie, a founder of the Elders Caring Shelter in Grande Prairie, and a long-time volunteer for several organizations that promote healing and opportunities for Indigenous people and members of other underserved communities. In 2005, she received the Governor General’s Sovereign’s Medal for Volunteers.
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.