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Cree to deliver message to Pope Francis about importance of action

The trip is being jointly organized by the Assembly of First Nations, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, Métis National Council, and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and is in preparation for an eventual visit of Pope Francis to Canada, expected to happen later this year.

Part of larger Indigenous delegation heading to the Vatican March 28 to April 1

Pope Francis. An Indigenous delegation representing nations from coast to coast to coast will be meeting privately with him from March 28 to April 1 at the Vatican. Representing the Cree Nation of Quebec will be Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty and Cree Youth Grand Chief Adrian N. Gunner. (Filippo Monteforte/ AFP )

A Cree delegation from northern Quebec is preparing to deliver a message to Pope Francis about the importance of an apology, but also the importance of action, when it meets with him later this month at the Vatican. 

Thirty Indigenous delegates, including survivors, knowledge keepers, leaders and youth representing Inuit, Métis and First Nations from coast to coast to coast will be meeting privately and publicly with Pope Francis from March 28 to April 1 at the Vatican. 

The trip is being jointly organized by the Assembly of First Nations, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, Métis National Council, and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and is in preparation for an eventual visit of Pope Francis to Canada, expected to happen later this year.

Our aim is to tell the stories about the painful legacy of the residential school system on our community members.- Mandy Gull-Masty, Cree Grand Chief

The delegates will press the Pope to make an official apology for the Church's role in running Catholic residential schools during his visit to Canada. 

"Our aim is to tell the stories about the painful legacy of the residential school system on our community members," said Gull-Masty, in a release.

The two first residential schools in Quebec, including one run by the Catholic Church, were located on Fort George Island, near the present day Cree community of Chisasibi, in northern Quebec. 

Gull-Masty and the Cree Nation Youth Grand Chief, Adrian N. Gunner, will be making the trip representing the Cree Nation. 

"We owe it to the survivors of these institutions and to the families of those children who never returned home to speak the truth and honour their spirits."

Asking for more than an apology

Gull-Masty said she's been chosen by the Assembly of First Nations delegation to address the issue of reparations. 

"To ask the Catholic church to provide funds going toward finding healing or to have different healing services and not only for the survivors but also to intergenerational survivors," said Gull-Masty in Cree. 

The youth who are part of the delegation, will also be invited to share their experiences of how residential school affected their parents, grandparents and cousins, said Gull-Masty. 

Marie-Louise Chakapash (left) and Molly Pashagumskum (right) at a residential school gathering on Fort George Island, near Chisasibi, Que. (submitted by George E. Pachano/ T.Philiptchenko)

The trip was initially scheduled for last December, but was postponed due to concerns over the Omicron variant. 

Some survivors critical of trip

Several Cree survivors took to social media on Monday to express their opposition to the trip by Cree leaders and their disappointment that survivors themselves won't be part of the Cree delegation.

"I don't support our people to go to the Vatican seeking an apology from the Pope," wrote Waskaganish survivor Susan Esau. 

"If he wants to apologize and wants forgiveness as a representative of the Church, he can come to us and pay for the repatriation of the little children that were never returned to the parents."

Fellow survivor, and Esau's brother, Charles, said an apology from the Pope would mean little to him. 

"Over a hundred and fifty years of historical trauma experiences from residential schools will not be wiped out with a few apologetic words…I'm sorry we got caught," wrote Charles Esau. 

Others say apology is necessary

Other Cree, like Allison MacLeod, of Mistissini, say an apology would be an important step forward. 

"I agree, apologies are meaningless words without action. But I think what the delegation is doing is discussing how an apology would work and that means taking responsibility for the schools," said MacLeod, who is not a survivor, but whose grandmother went to residential school.

Allison MacLeod, whose grandmother is a survivor, is from Mistissini and is studying at Carelton University. For her an apology is an important step forward. (Facebook)

"I know no amount of money will ever erase what happened, but an apology is still necessary," she said.

Gull-Masty says an apology must acknowledge the deep scars and pain caused by residential schools and must "assume responsibility for their role in these genocidal acts."

She added that the apology must go beyond just words to establish concrete actions to help survivors, their families and their communities heal.

"We cannot undo the past, but we can ensure that the past never repeats itself ever again," said Gull-Masty.

Gull-Masty attended a residential school gathering in Chisasibi at the end of last year and says the survivors really expressed a desire to have the archives of the residential schools run by the Catholic Church permanently transferred.

Gull-Masty says she will carry that message to the Pope.

"The people of Chisasibi really expressed that they want to be given the archives of  the residential schools," she said. 

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