Pope 'asked for our forgiveness,' Manitoba Métis Federation president says after Vatican meeting

Tears, smiles and a request for absolution marked a meeting between a Métis delegation and Pope Francis in Vatican City on Wednesday as the head of the Catholic Church offered more apologies for abuses suffered at Canada's residential schools.

'We can't change the past, but we can change the future. That was kind of the message we were giving him'

David Chartrand, president of the Manitoba Métis Federation, speaks to reporters after meeting with Pope Francis. Next to him is an olive branch presented by Francis, and Richard Gagnon, archbishop of Winnipeg. (Manitoba Métis Federation/YouTube)

Tears, smiles and a request for absolution marked a meeting between a Métis delegation and Pope Francis in Vatican City on Wednesday as the head of the Catholic Church offered more apologies for abuses suffered at Canada's residential schools.

"He actually asked for our forgiveness. He said how ashamed he was for this to happen to our people and he asked us to pray for him also," David Chartrand, president of the Manitoba Métis Federation, told CBC's Heather Hiscox after the historic meeting.

As Andrew Carrier, "one of the victims of the predators of the church," spoke about sexual abuse at the schools, Francis watched attentively "and you could see the emotion in his face," Chartrand said.

"For him to say that we should pray for him, too, was I think to tell us that he, too, is human — that he, too, needs help."

The Pope's reaction was similar to that described by the Indigenous delegations who met with him nearly three weeks earlier but was no less powerful, Chartrand said.

And then Francis did something Chartrand said caught the archbishops off guard.

WATCH | Manitoba Métis leader said Pope asked for forgiveness in meeting:

Manitoba Métis leader calls Pope meeting a ‘touching moment’

10 months ago
Duration 2:10
Pope Francis asked for forgiveness, in a meeting with the Manitoba Métis Federation, for the abuses suffered in Canada’s residential schools. David Chartrand, the federation’s president, says the meeting was a ‘touching moment’ for delegates who also extended an invitation for the pontiff to visit Winnipeg to bless Louis Riel’s gravesite.

"He shook every one of our delegation's hands and gave every one of them a gift. So everyone had a chance to speak privately for a few seconds each to the Pope. It was such a touching moment for everybody," he said.

"Many were just crying in tears as they got their gift and their handshake from the Pope. And he stayed with us and he signed our self-government agreement … that recognized the Métis as the self-government of the people of the Red River.

"So many things happened in that room. No doubt the interaction was magic."

Canada forced more than 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children to attend residential schools from the 1880s until 1996, a policy the Truth and Reconciliation Commission called "cultural genocide."

Francis told the Indigenous delegations on April 1 that he was sorry for what he called the "deplorable conduct" of some members of the Catholic Church and a "lack of respect shown for your identity, your culture and even your spiritual values."

Chartrand said his delegation had about 55 people, including representatives from Saskatchewan as well as elders and youth.

They presented Francis with a timeline of the Métis connection to the Catholic Church, dating back to 1817, as they asked him to include Winnipeg in a papal visit to Canada expected in late July.

"We had it translated in Spanish for him so he was reading it as I was speaking and expressing to him that Winnipeg is the largest Indigenous population anywhere in Canada and it would be a fitting place for him to come," Chartrand said.

Winnipeg is not one of the three Canadian cities that, according to sources involved in planning the trip, are being strongly considered for the Pope's visit

Chartrand said he hopes to change that and have Francis bless the grave of Louis Riel, the Métis leader who was instrumental in the creation of Manitoba and led resistance movements to defend Métis rights and identity.

Riel challenged Canada's legal right to divide up land to which it did not yet hold title, but rather than a gun, he carried a cross and was a devout Catholic, Chartrand said.

It was the church that sponsored Riel to become a priest, sending him to Montreal when he was a young man to study for the priesthood, Chartrand said.

Riel, who was executed for treason in Regina in 1885, is buried at St. Boniface Cathedral cemetery in Winnipeg.

"He gave his life not only to us, he gave his life to the church," Chartrand said, emphasizing the need for people to recognize the church is still sacred to Métis, despite the tragedies of residential schools.

The gravesite of Louis Riel, Métis leader and founder of Manitoba, is located on the grounds of the St. Boniface Cathedral. (Tourism Winnipeg)

The evil perpetrated in those schools was done by individuals, he said.

"It wasn't the church itself, it wasn't the Bible, it was not God's way or God's message. We know that these individuals that did this caused great harm to so many, including the Catholic Church."

Carrier, a survivor of those schools, agreed. 

"We have always been supported by the church," he said during a news conference later Wednesday, "but we need to understand we have to do a better job to protect the children, wherever we are, from any forms of abuse in order for them to be healthy and to learn and to be respected."

'We can't change history'

Chartrand and Carrier were challenged by reporters about their defence of the church, in spite of the stated intent of the residential school system to erase Indigenous culture.

Chartrand said, based on what he heard from Francis, the church concedes mistakes and harm that will take generations to overcome.

"There's no way in hell this would ever happen again, not in this era. So from that standpoint, 'how do we go forward?' is the question all of us have to ask," Chartrand said. "Many of us are now leading that new pathway."

Chartrand holds up a timeline that traces the Métis connection to the Catholic church since 1817. (Manitoba Métis Federation/YouTube)

To that end, Francis was also presented with two crosses and a pair of slippers, all beaded in traditional Métis style.

"The purpose of the red slippers was for him to walk with us as we go into hope and we go into a revitalization of how do we bring back the church into our communities, how do we bring back ourselves together to walk on this journey," Chartrand said.

"We can't change history, we can't change the past, but we can change the future. And that was kind of the message we were giving him.

Francis gave each of the delegates a rosary blessed by him and presented the group as a whole with an olive branch as a gesture of peace and reconciliation.

Chartrand, the longest-serving MMF president in his seventh term, admitted he felt humbled in the presence of Francis.

"I've been in politics for a long time. I've spoken before thousands of people on many occasions all over the world, but this particular one, I was nervous," he said.

"I was just proud to be close enough to him and to acknowledge and shake his hand and just be there with him. I left with such a happy heart."

As for a commitment from Francis to include Winnipeg in his July visit, Chartrand acknowledged the 85-year-old's health could be a challenge during a three- or four-day trip.

"I said if you cannot make it … I understand," Chartrand said at the news conference.

"I was hoping he'd say he's going to come to my house for dinner, but that did not happen."

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools or by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.


Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories. He is the author of award-nominated and bestselling The Lesser Known: A History of Oddities from the Heart of the Continent.