'It's a part of my healing too': Dene drummers reflect on performing during Pope's pilgrimage

For a Dene drummer from northern Alberta, the invitation to perform for a second pope brought mixed feelings, but he followed the guidance of his elders.

Ernest Tonka had the chance to address the Pope and receive a blessing before performing his drum prayer

Ernest Tonka performs a drum prayer for the Pope at the Sacred Heart Catholic Church of the First Peoples in Edmonton. (CBC News)

Ernest Tonka of Fort Simpson, N.W.T., was invited to drum for Pope Francis after the ceremony at the Sacred Heart Catholic Church of the First Peoples in Edmonton on Monday.

He said it was one of the best moments of his life. 

"He blessed my rosary, and he blessed me and he blessed my drum," Tonka said. 

Pope Francis delivers a blessing to Ernest Tonka, of Fort Simpson, N.W.T. Tonka performed a drum prayer for the Pope after a ceremony at the Sacred Heart Catholic Church of the First Peoples in Edmonton. (CBC News)

Tonka sang a prayer for the Pope that comes from Délı̨nę. 

"I told the Holy Father that song is when you're calling out to heaven, you're calling out to God," Tonka said of the prayer. 

"I sang it for everybody, throughout Canada and throughout the world," he said. 

Being at the church for the ceremony on was emotional for Tonka. 

"The tears couldn't stop and just kept going, and going and going," he said. 

Tonka attended residential and day schools and struggled with the pain and hurt that came from it, until he spoke with an elder. 

"I have all this pain that I carried for years," he said. 

The elder told Tonka he needed to release the hurt and pain from his soul and let it go.

He said drumming and hearing the apology helped him.

"It's a part of my healing too," Tonka said. 

He wants to share that same message he heard from the elder. 

"To have forgiveness and to move on in life, we can't always hang onto the past," Tonka said. "Start breathing, talk about the issues… If you speak and talk about the issues that are bothering you, that will set you free."

Drummers pose with Dene National Chief Gerald Antoine, centre. Gordon Pastion, second from left, has now performed during two papal visits to Canada. (Submitted by Gordon Paschen)

Drumming for a second pope on traditional lands

For the second time in his life, Gordon Pastion had the chance to drum for a pope. 

Pastion, who is from the Dene Thá First Nation in Northern Alberta, was invited to drum when Pope John Paul II visited Fort Simpson in 1987. He was again invited to drum, this time on Tuesday for a mass held by Pope Francis at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton. 

He said he had mixed feelings on the situation but that he followed an old teaching. 

"The elders always told me 'when you're asked to drum, you have to drum.' And it was just a blessing to be a part of," Pastion said. 

For Pastion, the papal apology wasn't just a time for Indigenous people to listen, it was also a chance to showcase a culture that lives on.

"The songs that we sang were spiritual," Pastion said. 

Pastion said it was an honour to be invited by a Treaty 6 chief to perform, and that the number of people watching didn't intimidate him. 

"As a drummer, I've been performing for large crowds," he said. 

Pastion said he felt a lot of mixed emotions from the apology. He said he didn't attend a residential school, but their impact affects everyone. 

For him, the takeaway is that he can forgive and move on but not forget what happened. 


Luke Carroll


Luke Carroll is a journalist with CBC News in Yellowknife who has previously worked in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Ontario. Luke is originally from Brockville, Ont., and moved to Yellowknife in May 2020. He can be reached at