Current and former Alexis Nakota Sioux chiefs reflect on papal visit

The head of the Roman Catholic Church is expected to arrive in Edmonton Sunday, the first of a three-day stay in Alberta.

Papal apology a validation but more work needed, says Alexis Nakota Sioux Chief

Rod Alexis, left, and Chief Tony Alexis, right, reflect on their trip to Rome five years ago and what the upcoming papal visit might mean. (Manuel Carrillos Avalos/CBC)

Among the events included on the Pope's itinerary in Alberta this week is a visit to Lac Ste. Anne on Tuesday, where he will join tens of thousands of people on pilgrimage to the sacred site.

The annual event has long held historical significance for Indigenous people in Canada.

"Just knowing that he's coming here now, it's really important for our people," Chief Tony Alexis of the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation said last week in an interview by the lakeshore.

The head of the Roman Catholic Church is expected to arrive in Edmonton Sunday, to begin three-day stay in Alberta.

The visit to Lac Ste. Anne will be the fulfilment of an invitation from the Nation in 2016 when Tony Alexis and his brother travelled to the Vatican, delivering hundreds of letters from First Nations people directly to the pontiff.

Pope Francis is expected to offer an apology to First Nations, Métis and Inuit for the church's role in residential schools, though it is unclear to what extent he will take responsibility on behalf of the church.

Chief Tony Alexis and Pope Francis shown meeting in St. Peter's Square in 2016. (Vatican Radio Facebook)

Alexis said there are those in the community who are still deeply wounded.

"The apology, what it's going to do, it's going to validate that it really happened," he said. 

"We hope that it releases them, it will release them then to start healing. And that's the goal and the hope."

Wakamne: God's lake

Lac Ste. Anne is known as Wakamne in Stoney, which translates to "God's lake."

"We've been part of this lake, lived alongside the shore for years and years," Chief Tony Alexis's brother Rod Alexis, a former chief himself, said.

"We've been here all the time — way before the treaties were signed and before the church came."

Rod and Tony Alexis's grandfather was the last hereditary chief of the Nation. Their great-great-grandfather signed an adhesion to Treaty 6 and evangelized the community.

But Rod Alexis said Nakota Sioux members were not accepted by the church.

"We had our own belief system. We were told that ours wasn't right," he said. 

"But if you study our traditional way of relating to the Creator, it makes you a stronger Christian. And that's what the Christian people couldn't understand."

Rod Alexis, a residential school survivor, remembers the threat of the strap if they gave answers not exactly aligned with Catholic doctrine. Indigenous cultures were censured in the schools.

"You lose a lot. You lose your language, you lose everything. And coming home to start relearning things," he said. 

Rod Alexis's parents too were former students. He asked his father how the experience affected him.

"'Son,' he said, 'I never once told you I love you because I didn't know how but I tried every way I can to show that I love you. I did my best to show those things.'"

From invitation to arrival: Alberta chief reflects on six-year journey to papal visit

4 months ago
Duration 2:24
Chief Tony Alexis first invited Pope Francis to visit Lac Ste. Anne in 2016. Six years later, he hopes the visit will help bring reconciliation and healing for Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation.


Rod Alexis said he has had forgiveness for a long time and that revitalizing Indigenous culture is key to healing.

"I'm glad that he's acknowledging who we are and he's coming to an area where all the different traditions and languages are going to be."

Tony Alexis said it's important for the community to know there's an opportunity for healing but cautions the apology is not the be-all-end-all for repairing their relationship with the church. 

He said the church itself must heal and forego patronizing attitudes.

"Still today in some situations that we observe, they still talk down to us like we don't have a culture."

Tony Alexis said the Pope's intention is clear in what he is doing now.

"What has to happen now is the people who work for them, everybody else that's supporting them, need to do the work too. It's not only us, it's the church too."

He compares the apology to a vehicle collision.

"If I run into your car and I drive away and I say, 'I'm sorry,' in a year later or so you're going to be driving around here, maybe the fenders flapping or it fell off or something like that. 

"You're not going to feel very good about the fact that I just said, 'I'm sorry.' 

"So there's some work that has to happen from that afterwards."


Stephen Cook


Stephen Cook is a reporter with CBC Edmonton. He has covered stories on a wide range of topics with a focus on policy, politics, post-secondary education and labour. You can reach him via email at stephen.cook@cbc.ca.

With files from Kyle Muzyka