ROME — An air of anticipation filled the Indigenous delegates as their long flight from Montreal touched down in Rome early Sunday morning ahead of scheduled meetings with Pope Francis.
“We are here because of our family, our family that has been uprooted, displaced and also relocated,” said Chief Gérald Antoine, head of the Assembly of First Nations delegation.
“It’s been a long journey. Finally, we come here to bring their message here.”
The 32 Indigenous delegates may have different expectations heading into their upcoming meetings with the head of the Roman Catholic Church, but it’s clear they all feel this is an important moment in the story.
Antoine said sitting with friends, family, survivors and young people during the long journey from different parts of Canada to Italy has brought support and unity.
“It was really good to meet again and talk about our own anticipation for the trip,” said Antoine.
Métis delegates will be the first to sit down with Pope Francis on Monday morning, followed by Inuit delegates later in the afternoon.
First Nations delegates will meet with the pontiff on Thursday. The three groups of delegates will then meet with the pope on Friday for a much more public meeting that the Vatican plans to broadcast live on its website.
“I’m thrilled, I think…to actually be here. It’s like it gives you comfort that what’s happening,” said Taylor Behn-Tsakoza, a youth representative from Fort Nelson First Nation in Columbia. British.
She said it was crucial to actually be in Rome, especially as the initial dates for the delegation in December had been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Behn-Tsakoza said the conversations she shared with survivors during the trip left her humbled.
“It’s their strength and their perseverance, the reason we’re here,” she said.
About 170 people are taking part in the trip to the Vatican. Beyond the official delegates, there are family members and others to lend their support. There are also staff for the Assembly of First Nations, the Métis National Council and the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami.
The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops organized the delegation and will include a handful of bishops present.
Delegates split into two buses to travel from the airport to the hotel where they were to spend most of Sunday resting and preparing for the week’s meetings.
In a bus, with Antoine as a passenger, the driver indicated monuments and historic buildings on the road. When the bus turned onto a road that bears the name of Christopher Columbus, the driver called him a “great Italian man”.
This prompted a series of boos on the bus as well as laughter as the indigenous delegates acknowledged they were not the right crowd for the Italian explorer’s celebrations.
During the week, delegates will also be able to visit the Vatican Museums, see collections of indigenous art and visit Assisi, the birthplace of St. Francis, one of Italy’s most famous patron saints.
The theme of the delegation is Walking Together towards Healing and Reconciliation. Each indigenous group will have a one-hour private meeting with the Pope. They all expressed different intentions about what they will do with this time.
But they all shared their expectation that Francis would pledge to apologize for the role of the Catholic Church in residential schools. The Vatican, for its part, said the Pope was open to a visit to Canada.
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on March 27, 2022.
Kelly Geraldine Malone, The Canadian Press