Edmonton

Pope Francis handed hundreds of letters from Alberta First Nations people

Treaty 6 Grand Chief Tony Alexis travels to Rome to ask for prayers for Indigenous people across Canada

Chief Tony Alexis and Pope Francis

Grand Chief Tony Alexis and Pope Francis during their meeting in St. Peter's Square on Wednesday. (Vatican Radio Facebook)

 shares

Hundreds of young people from Alberta First Nations, including many who've lost loved ones to suicide, had their personal letters delivered this week to Pope Francis in Rome.

Treaty 6 Grand Chief Tony Alexis delivered the letters himself during a meeting in St. Peter's Square on Wednesday.

"It was a very beautiful day for us," said Alexis, who is also chief at the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation, northwest of Edmonton.

Alexis said it was a special feeling, handing over letters that mean so much to the young people, who wanted him to ask for the Pope's prayers to help them heal.

"Our young people are committing suicide," he said. "And anything that we can do to encourage and instill hope, and share and inspire, we're working towards that."

Alexis said the young people seeking prayers also asked him to get a hug from the Pope for them.

"There was a request that came from the young people, that when you're out there and you visit with him, ask for a hug for us. And we mentioned that to him, and he gave a hug."

Treaty 6 Grand Chief Tony Alexis with Pope Francis

Treaty 6 Grand Chief Tony Alexis presented the Pope with a painted drum made by Alberta artist Eugene Alexis. (Vatican Radio Facebook)

The issue of young Indigenous people taking their own lives has dominated headlines across the country this year.

In March alone, 28 people tried to kill themselves in the northern Ontario community of Attawapiskat.

Alberta's Child and Youth Advocate released a report earlier this week into the suicide deaths of seven teenagers.

Chief Tony Alexis and Pope Francis

Chief Tony Alexis, Rev. Les Kwiatkowski from Lac Ste. Anne parish and former chief Rod Alexis and speaking to the Pope in Rome. (Vatican Radio Facebook)

Alexis presented the Pope with a painted-hand drum made by local artist Eugene Alexis.

"The drum to us is the heartbeat of Mother Earth," he said. "There's many stories that explain that. And I know Pope Francis had made comments about climate change, and it's such an important subject."

The painting on the drum depicts the Lac Ste. Anne Pilgrimage grounds, where thousands of Indigenous people go every July.

Alexis invited the Pope to visit Alberta to share in the experience at Lac Ste. Anne, but said there's been no response so far.

"It would be nice if he could attend that, so we hand-delivered a handwritten invitation to him."

Chief Tony Alexis and Pope Francis

Chief Tony Alexis said he was moved that Pope Francis asked First Nations people to also say prayers for him. (Vatican Radio Facebook)

Most of what Alexis said had to be translated into Spanish, so the Pope could understand. But he said he felt a strong connection with the leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics.

On his trip to Rome, Alexis was accompanied by other members from Alexis and Paul First Nations, and by Rev. Les Kwiatkowski from Lac Ste. Anne Parish, who helped organize the meeting.

Alexis described the trip as the opportunity of a lifetime.

"It's a moment in my life I will always remember," he said. "And I thought, there's a lot of people who are struggling out there. I thought about them and my family. My father, who is ill, too."

He said while many of the letters asking for prayers were written by young people, others were from Indigenous people of all ages and from across Canada.

What made the experience even more momentous, Alexis said, was the way it ended.

"I was honoured that at the end of our visit, Pope Francis humbly asked that we also pray for him."

gareth.hampshire@cbc.ca

@cbcgareth