Assembly of First Nations announces 13 delegates to meet Pope Francis at the Vatican

A chief and residential school survivor says he will be looking for justice and healing when he leads the Assembly of First Nations delegation to meet with Pope Francis next month at the Vatican.

“We do this to seek true reconciliation,” Norman Yakeleya, Assembly of First Nations regional chief for the Northwest Territories, said Thursday.

“We pray to God, we pray that the Holy Father will do the right thing.”

On Thursday, the AFN announced 13 delegates, including Yakeleya, will be going to the Vatican from Dec. 14 to 21. Those chosen represent First Nations across the country and include residential school survivors and two youth delegates.

Wilton Littlechild from Alberta, who was a commissioner for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, will be the spokesperson.

The group will have a one-hour meeting with the Pope on Dec. 20 when they expect to talk about different themes including the 10 principles of reconciliation and unmarked graves at the sites of former residential schools.

There will also be Metis and Inuit delegations, which will have separate one-hour meetings with the Pope.

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops will cover travel costs.

Yakeleya said when he was a child in a residential school in Inuvik, he never imagined in his wildest dreams that he would be able to talk to the Pope or hold him accountable.

He said the group will ask Pope Francis to deliver an apology for the Catholic Church’s role in residential schools. But, he said, the discussion must go further because “it’s also important to think about what happens in a post-apology world.”

“Only God knows what the Holy Father will say to us,” Yakeleya said.

Over a century, an estimated 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend residential schools. More than 60 per cent of the schools were run by the Catholic Church.

Calls for the Pope to apologize for the church’s role in the schools intensified since the discovery last spring of hundreds of unmarked graves at former residential school sites.

The delegation’s theme is how Indigenous Peoples and the Catholic Church can come together toward healing and reconciliation.

Last month, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis is also willing to make a visit to Canada.

Former AFN national chief Phil Fontaine from Sagkeeng First Nation in Manitoba said he hopes Pope Francis will commit to an apology in Canada during the delegation’s visit to Rome.

Fontaine put experiences at residential schools on the national agenda in 1990 when he disclosed his own abuse at the Fort Alexander school in Manitoba.

He was also part of a previous Indigenous delegation with former pope Benedict that requested an apology in 2009. Pope Benedict expressed his sorrow and “personal anguish” but never apologized.

“The circumstances are so different for this visit,” Fontaine said.

“We are off to Rome with great expectations.”

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