Three First Nations Chiefs, wearing eagle feathers, sit at a table

Leaders of the host Nations discuss the mixed emotions surrounding the papal apology

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By Chevi Rabbit, Alberta Native News, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

(Ermineskin Cree Nation, Treaty Six Territory) – It was an historic three days in central Alberta as Pope Francis embarked on his “penitential visit.”  The first stop in the Papal visit was in Maskwacis, where the Pope offered an emotional apology at the site of the former Ermineskin Residential School. His remarks evoked a range of emotions. The Chiefs of Treaty Six First Nations provided these reflections as part of a press conference following the Pope’s apology in Ermineskin Cree Nation.

Chief of Alexander First Nation, Treaty Six Grand Chief George Arcand Jr.

“I see Pope Francis’s apology today as only the first step in the Church making amends with our People.

After meeting with the Pope and hearing his words today – I believe there is a path forward together. There’s a lot of work to be done. The system within the Church needs to be unlearned -– their ways of patronizing our people — and repair the relationships by looking to us as partners. I have faith it can be done – I know it can be done.

I am hopeful – Pope Francis has shown grace. He can lead the change for his people and we are prepared to walk alongside them on their reconciliation journey. I thank him for honouring our requests to deliver this apology in person. It is a gift for many.

I ask for Canadians to show kindness towards our Survivors, their families and our communities – some of us will be deeply impacted. Some of us will have to go home to our people. Some will have to continue to deal with the fallout. I”m hopeful the government and church will work with us on a path forward. We have no commitment or agreement to move things forward. Hopefully the government and church will reach out their hand.

Today I believe we begin a new journey. Today, I believe we now start to have to do the work necessary to make things better. And I sit by my fellow Chiefs and Survivors. To build that new road and create a better place for our people to live.”

Chief of Alexis Nakota Sioux First Nation Tony Alexis

“There was a lot of hope that people brought here. And as soon as the apology started, people were triggered immediately. You could see it in the audience, you could see it and you could hear it. It triggered the opening of a wound again. We can’t just leave it like that. We really have to take the steps to make sure that we help heal and recover, and we are doing that on our own as Native people.

But the partners that are participating in this, the people helping our cause through policy or through their own hand, which is the church and the government, they need to step up.

You can’t just say I’m sorry and walk away. There has to be effort, there has to be work and more meaningful action behind it. There was a call for an investigation, the investigation has to be done, not by Canada, but independently. There’s a lot of work that still has to happen.

For everybody who could not make it, we are here for you as a witness and we have observed, the songs that were sung by our people, the feathers that were carried by our leaders, the Elders who were praying for us and hoping that we do a great job, even as leaders sitting here right now. We were your witness. And how we perceive what happened today – it could be a failure or it could be a positive, and it’s for everybody to judge that on their own because everybody is at different stages in their healing.

I just want to say to everybody here: Thank you for bearing witness today. All the media who are here from all over the world, the people are watching — we are storytellers. So the story you tell has to be told in a way that demonstrates today as a historic moment. We are standing on our own, and in spite of how hard it was, we continue to share the stories of our people.”

Chief of Louis Bull First Nation Desmond Bull

“I just want to share something, to speak from my heart at this moment. As I have this platform allowed to bring this forward, I welcome this opportunity.

If you want to help us in healing on our journey, within this country, or within this province, please stop telling us to “get over it.”

We can’t get over it when the last of our residential schools closed in the mid-nineties. We can’t get over it when our Survivors are still here. We can’t get over it when intergenerational trauma impacts every Youth, every member, and everyone who has a family that has a survivor of residential schools.

Instead of getting over it, I’m asking you to get with it. Get with learning about our history, get with learning about our culture, our people, who we are. Get with reaching out to your neighbouring Métis, Inuit or First Nations person and learn more about them. You want to help with our healing? Get with our healing and be part of our journey.

This is what I ask and I hope people will see this. So when you see a First Nations person, please don’t tell them to get over it, but get with it and understand who they are and understand why they’re going through the trauma that they are going through, and be a part of that healing journey.”

Chief Greg Desjarlais, Frog Lake First Nation

“I would describe today as bittersweet. It’s bitter in some people’s minds and hearts. You could see it on social media, some people are upset. But it’s also sweet for some. Those that have moved on and moved into a direction of healing. There is a better life for our people out there. Even though our ancestors went through residential school and its atrocities. The abuse. Physical, emotional, verbal, sexual.

I sit here amongst the Chiefs and Survivors.

This apology — we could take it. Accept it. And move forward the best we know how. Or we can be stuck. I want to encourage the Survivors to move forward in a good way. Because we are the products of these Survivors. Some call them thrivers. They’re the drivers as well that are going to help change the landscape for our children and grandchildren.

I had to learn about the Vatican flag yesterday. There were two keys on that flag. The individual from the Vatican said, It’s in the Bible – Those are the two keys to heaven. So what I’m hoping for here today is the Pope brought our key as First Nations people. To heal. To heal. To have a better life. To prosper. I’m thankful for today, thankful to the Creator.”

Chief of Ermineskin Cree Nation, Randy Ermineskin

“After today, I was emotional. Seeing the people that came here to hear an apology – my heart broke for the pain in the moment.
I sat there in memory of my late brother, Brian, who took his life at 17 years old in 1969. He attended school here in Ermineskin. He said, “This is the last time you’ll see me”. Sure enough – he did what he did. I always think about that – he was only 17 years old. What kind of life would he have had? I am sure he’d have been a prominent member of our Nation.

I sat there thinking about my parents, my brothers who have gone on. They left this world without telling their stories. In 1969, I stepped into this gym that is just behind me and I came full circle. I had a dream to be a teacher. I attended the school here and I always said to myself, I’m going to be a better teacher than these guys. I was getting tired of getting my ears pulled and slapped. And I was told I was never getting anywhere. I would never accomplish anything.

Three degrees later, I’m going to have my doctorate. Eventually, I taught at the school here, and became a phys-ed teacher. So when I was waiting for the Pope at the old residential school site, I just pictured my first year in school. So we think about that true justice. Healing. Those are some of the things that have been building blocks from my own life that I have had to confront.”

Chief Vernon Saddleback, Samson Cree Nation

“I always told Chief Ermineskin, when it was announced that his Holiness was coming to our community here to come and apologize, I told him from the get go that I was just here to support the Ermineskin Cree Nation. They’re our neighbour community. My mother’s family comes from Ermineskin, my father’s family comes from Samson. As the Chief of Samson, I told him, “Whatever Samson can do to support.”

We’re here to help and do whatever we can because I have a lot of Survivors and thrivers in my community who were happy to hear the Pope was coming to apologize.

Words cannot describe how important today is for the healing journey for a lot of First Nations people, and especially for the people from Samson Cree Nation. So, I’m really grateful for this event to happen today. 

This is an historic day and words fail me to say the importance of what this means to my people.”

Top image credit: Some ot the Treaty Six Chiefs who attend a press conference to provide their reflections on the Papal apology. (Screen Shot) Chevi Rabbit, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

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