Lorelei Williams raised her fist high in the air in front of the Vatican, with St. Peter’s Basilica glowing by lamplight as the hour approached midnight.
Dressed in a stunning red cape with a trim of black hands, she called on Pope Francis to acknowledge and act on the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people in Canada.
“If he starts to say this is an issue in Canada, maybe people will actually start listening,” the Skatin and Sts’Ailes First Nations woman from Vancouver told Global News.
“In Canada, Indigenous women are at the very bottom and we’re fighting. I’m struggling, trying to survive.”
Since she arrived in Rome last week, Williams has worn her cape and draped herself in the genocide flag of Canada to take photos in front of both sacred and historic sites.
It’s a powerful reminder of the strength, culture and identity that Canada’s colonial government, in partnership with the Roman Catholic Church and others, sought to wipe out. Pope Francis may not have seen the images, but Williams’ work in Italy did not go unnoticed.
On Tuesday night, Sts’ailes Chief Ralph Leon and Coun. Kelsey Charlie were in St. Peter’s Square as she took photos in front of one of the most sacred Catholic shrines in the world. They were so proud and inspired, they spontaneously went into ceremony and gave Williams her “sacred inheritance” – her first ancestral Indigenous name.
“This is really organic, it’s nothing that we planned out or anything,” said Charlie, holding a hide drum whose artwork was done by Williams’ father. “We felt it was a spirit-driven process for us.”
“We love you, you’re a woman warrior,” added Leon, wrapping Williams in a warm embrace.
They called her Palexelsiya, after the meeting place where the Sts’Ailes nation’s upper and lower villages once connected with each other. It’s a place name with deep roots in their family and community, they explained, adorning her with a blanket and woven headband.
They began to sing and drum, enacting Sts’Ailes law on Roman soil. Tears of joy streamed down Palexelsiya’s face; in addition to carrying great personal meaning to her, it was likely the first ceremony of its kind to take place next to the headquarters of the Catholic Church.
Palexelsiya said it was a night she would never forget, and later posted on Instagram, “They tried to take our culture, laws and language away. We didn’t lose it, it’s still here. This is proof of that!”
Palexelsiya has been a passionate MMIWG2S advocate for many years.
Her aunt Belinda Williams went missing in 1978, and her cousin Tonya Holyk was a victim of Robert Pickton in 1996. In 2012, she founded Butterflies in Spirit, a Vancouver-based dance group that raises awareness of violence against Indigenous women and girls and the MMIWG2S crisis.
Her work has taken her all around the world and she said it’s common for people in other countries to know nothing about the Indigenous Peoples of Turtle Island, or the violence and discrimination they’ve endured over centuries.
That’s why she started taking the MMIWG2S photos in Rome, she explained.
“This is where it all began, this is where it started. (Europe) is where all those people came (from) and killed our people,” Palexelsiya said. “I really hope change happens, so it’s very powerful to be here with the cape, with the genocide flag, because people need to know the truth.”
It’s especially important to have representation from British Columbia in Rome, she added, because the province is home to the notorious Highway of Tears. Dozens of Indigenous women and girls have gone missing or been killed on or near the 725-kilometre stretch of Highway 16 between Prince George and Prince Rupert since the 1950s.
On Friday, Pope Francis did not specially address the MMWIG2S crisis in his historic apology for the role of some Catholic clergy members in Canada’s harrowing residential school system. He did not single out Indigenous women in any way.
The apology, delivered in Vatican City at the conclusion of meetings with a delegation of Indigenous Peoples to Rome, was always intended to address residential schools specifically, but the head of the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) said she hoped MMIWG2S would be mentioned.
The crisis, Grandmother White Sea Turtle Lorraine Whitman explained, is a symptom of residential schools, intergenerational trauma and the colonial devaluing of Indigenous lives.
“In my mind, you have to include everything, because we’re like a tree of life and under that tree of life there are roots,” she said. “The missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and two spirit, we’re intertwined in it.”
Multiple members of the Indigenous delegation to Rome raised the MMIWG2S crisis before Pope Francis in private audiences throughout the week.
Wilton Littlechild, a Truth and Reconciliation commissioner and survivor, shared plans with Global News to ask the Pope to endorse the genocidal findings of the National Inquiry Into MMIWG2S.
Adeline Webber, Yukon representative and a longtime advocate for Indigenous women, said she included the crisis in her talking points with the pontiff too.
On Thursday, Fred Kelly, spiritual advisor to the First Nations delegation, also raised MMIWG2S. In a press conference, he asked journalists, bishops and fellow delegates to observe a moment of silence not only for residential school victims and survivors, but also Indigenous women and girls who have been “murdered,” and are “lost and being molested as we speak, tortured for sexual gratification by somebody.”
Whitman said she appreciated the “good faith” actions of all those delegates, but said NWAC should still have been given the option to attend and provide representation specific to the priorities and concerns of Indigenous women.
“Too often, we’re never sitting at the tables. Other people decide for us.”
Webber, a residential school survivor who was involved with NWAC for many years, agreed. Like the Assembly of First Nations, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and Métis National Council, NWAC is a federally-recognized national Indigenous organization.
“It’s sad that people are not inviting the Native Women’s Association of Canada,” Webber said during a rare quiet moment in her hotel conference room. “Women’s groups always get left out.”
Whitman said seeing Palexelsiya’s photos in front of monuments and churches in Rome brought “a lot of emotions” to her heart, knowing Palexelsiya is dancing out her pain.
“She is not leaving the murdered, missing, Indigenous women, two spirit and diverse community out of the picture,” she told Global News.
“We know her voice, without even speaking, is being amplified and she’s educating the people in Rome.”
Palexelsiya was in Vatican City to hear the Pope’s apology on Friday, and his acknowledgment of the great pain suffered by Indigenous people. Like others in the expanded delegation who departed Rome on Saturday, she said she looks forward to hearing Pope Francis deliver those words on Turtle Island.