Mixed reaction from Indigenous leaders on Manitoba's exclusion from Pope's visit

A Métis leader is disappointed Pope Francis will not visit Winnipeg while he's in Canada, but a former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations is just glad the Pope will make the trip at all.

Manitoba Métis Federation president David Chartrand had hoped Pope Francis would bless grave of Louis Riel

David Chartrand, president of the Manitoba Métis Federation, centre, attends mass at the Basilica Papale di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome in April. Chartrand had hoped to convince Pope Francis to come to Manitoba during his trip to Canada in July. (Submitted by Kat Patenaude)

A Métis leader is disappointed Pope Francis will not visit Winnipeg while he's in Canada, but a Manitoban and former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations is just glad the head of the Roman Catholic Church will make the trip at all.

When Manitoba Métis Federation president David Chartrand met with Pope Francis in Vatican City last month, he asked him to visit Winnipeg, which has the largest Indigenous population in Canada and is the home of the Métis.

Chartrand said Friday that the formal announcement of the Pope's planned stops in Edmonton, Quebec City and Iqaluit left him "very disappointed in the hearts of hearts."

The Vatican confirmed Thursday that Pope Francis will make three main stops, in Edmonton, Quebec City and Iqaluit, during the last week of July. His last event will be on July 29, while the following day is expected to be a travel day.

In April, Chartrand said he hoped Francis would come to Winnipeg and bless the grave of Louis Riel, the Métis leader and founder of Manitoba who led resistance movements to defend Métis rights and identity.

Chartrand said he understands the Pope has health issues that limit his tour of Canada, but he's not giving up.

He said he is still working with Archbishop of Winnipeg Richard Gagnon and writing letters of appeal to the Vatican to include Winnipeg in the papal visit.

"I was hoping that our message and our presentation and all the evidence we brought forward would be so strong that he'd have to come to Manitoba and to meet the Métis at Red River," he said.

The blessing of Riel's grave "would really have been massive, a major step forward in reconciliation," he said.

Not all Indigenous leaders share Chartrand's disappointment.

Phil Fontaine, a former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, was also hoping the Pope would bless Riel's grave during a visit to the city, but said he is "not at all disappointed."

"It's not in the cards," he said. The Pope has very limited time during his visit to Canada and in my view I think they've selected three good sites."

Former Assembly of First Nations national chief Phil Fontaine said he wished the Pope planned a stop in Winnipeg during his visit, but he appreciates that the pontiff is on a tight schedule and has health challenges. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Fonatine said he thinks it would be wrong for him to take issue with the site selection.

"We were very involved in the process leading up to the papal visit, the private encounters and the general audience in Rome," he said.

"We had delegates from Manitoba at those encounters and that's, I think, important to remember."

Fontaine is glad the visit to Rome resulted in an apology from Pope Francis for the conduct of some members of the Roman Catholic Church in Canada's residential school system — an apology he expects the Pope will expand on when on Canadian soil. 

"The apology is one thing — it's an important moment, of course, on the path to reconciliation," he said.

"But there has to be a very firm commitment on … next steps that will include the Catholic Church in Canada, the Canadian government and, very directly, the survivors of the residential school experience."

Archbishop Albert LeGatt of Manitoba's St. Boniface Catholic diocese suggested the sites that were selected are also in areas of cultural, historical and religious significance to Indigenous people in those places.

Albert LeGatt, archbishop of Manitoba's St. Boniface Catholic diocese, suggested it's not so much a question of the Pope not coming to Winnipeg as it is the product of a collective decision from the various groups co-ordinating, including a bishop's working group, the Assembly of First Nations, the Métis National Council and others. (Radio-Canada)

Pope Francis "is going to visit the First Nations, the Indigenous, where they have always traditionally met in link with the church," LeGatt said.

"My sense is really he's chosen to go with the theme and the reality of pilgrimage, which means you're not coming to simply deliver a message and go, but … [to] be with, to learn from, to listen, to speak. He'll be asking for forgiveness," he said. 

"He'll be encouraging real dialogue going forward, so it's not at all in the sense of, OK, gone there, done this, got the T-shirt sort of thing.

"It's about really continuing to try to advance and that sense of pilgrimage where the Indigenous have been meeting."

'I don't think it matters to my generation'

Lisa Meeches, executive director of the Manito Ahbee Festival, said the decision not to visit Winnipeg won't matter to many Indigenous people.

She said institutions like the Catholic Church and other religious groups that operated Canada's residential schools were involved in the "near annihilation of our people."

"It didn't work," she said on Friday, as preparations got underway for a teepee raising contest ahead of the festival, which runs from May 18 to 23.

Festivals like Manito Ahbee are about reclaiming Indigenous cultures, which were suppressed under the Indian Act, she said.

"Whether the Pope wants to stop here, I don't think it matters to my generation, to a lot of us who were helping working the front lines," she said.

Indigenous leaders split over Pope Francis not planning to visit Manitoba

1 year ago
Duration 2:44
The president of the Manitoba Métis Federation is disappointed Pope Francis will not visit Winnipeg while he's in Canada. He will only make three main stops, in Edmonton, Quebec City and Iqaluit, during the last week of July.

Chartrand is sending a letter to the Pope urging him to reconsider, while also making preparations for a delegation from Manitoba to attend the visit in Edmonton.

More locations near the main sites and specific itinerary details will be released six to eight weeks before the papal visit, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops said.

The pontiff initially announced his plan to visit Canada during a meeting on April 1 with First Nations, Inuit and Métis delegates who travelled to the Vatican to meet him.

With files from Meaghan Ketcheson, Sam Samson and Cameron MacLean