An invitation to the Pope to visit Manitoba during his trip to Canada has advocates hopeful it could become a historical moment of healing and reconciliation for Indigenous communities.
The Manitoba legislature unanimously passed a motion to invite Pope Francis to visit Manitoba Thursday to attend the graves of children who died at residential schools and bestow a blessing on the grave of Métis hero Louis Riel.
During a recent delegation to Vatican City, the Manitoba Métis Federation, the government of the Red River Métis, also requested the Pope visit the province. His Canadian itinerary has not yet been confirmed by the Vatican.
It is critical to have the Pope visit Manitoba, said Jeanine Pelletier, Brandon Urban Aboriginal Peoples’ Council vice-chair, as it would be a powerful acknowledgment for residential school survivors and their families. Honouring the children who continue to be found in unmarked graves is vital as it matters to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.
The graves are part of the darker side of Canadian history and communities are continuing to heal from the traumas created by residential schools.
The healing journey is a difficult road, Pelletier said, but to see the Pope visit Winnipeg would be an incredible step on the path of reconciliation.
"Forgiveness is very powerful," Pelletier said. "But it’s so hard to forgive because we have been hurt so many times."
Reconciliation is not possible without truth, she said, and at times this can include hard truths. Indigenous communities still face generations of trauma from residential schools, and healing is essential.
"We weren’t taught to love. We didn’t know what love was."
She hopes in the future to see more non-Indigenous people come and learn and be part of Indigenous ceremonies and teachings. The invitation extended to the Pope could serve as a catalyst to promote these opportunities.
Pelletier’s mother Christiana Bear was a residential school survivor. For years Pelletier was in the dark about what her mother lived through while in residential school from ages four to 18. She gave birth to Pelletier at age 19.
Pelletier has three pictures of her and her mom, and one can see the hardship and pain of her experiences etched on Bear’s face.
Residential schools created incredible challenges in the community, she said, because how can someone be a positive parent when they did not have their parents to look to while growing up?
Many Indigenous communities continue to grieve the families that have been lost.
Her mom remained a believer in the church regardless of what she experienced while in school. One of Pelletier’s lingering questions is a large rosary she discovered in her mom’s room after her death.
She can feel her mom’s presence when she holds the religious icon, Pelletier said.
"No matter where she was in her journey in life, she always had that with her," Pelletier said. "It has a lot of story behind it but I don’t know what it means."
Calling on the Pope to come to Manitoba is a non-partisan issue, said NDP critic for reconciliation Ian Bushie. The province has a large Indigenous population, many of whom attended residential schools.
The apology issued at the Vatican in April was a step toward reconciliation, he said, but seeing that message reiterated on Manitoba soil would be powerful.
"It just shows the importance overall on this path, this journey of reconciliation that Indigenous people have been through to have that happen here. It would be very spiritual, very uplifting and would show a lot on that journey towards reconciliation, to say that the Pope took that time, took that effort on behalf of the Catholic Church and apologize in the communities, in the territories of the First Nation citizens that were affected."
Regardless if the Pope visits the province, the invitation is increasing conversations about reconciliation, Bushie said, and he hopes to open the eyes of Manitobans across the province about the need for healing in Indigenous communities.
Residential schools and reconciliation were not topics typically discussed in the past, he added, and now they are becoming part of everyday life. These conversations can lead to change through education, especially as it becomes more common.
"That’s what’s important to drive this path to reconciliation and healing," Bushie said.
Survivors need to be able to share their lived experiences as part of the path to reconciliation. Speaking these truths is a way to mend relationships by acknowledging what happened while at these facilities.
"To have the church and the institutions that ran the church and ran the residential school system to be able to say, ‘here’s the truth about what happened,’ then you can have that open conversation towards healing," Bushie said.
"When that truth comes out, you can have those open conversations and you can really work on the healing process."
Government house leader Kelvin Goertzen said it is appropriate to ask the Pope to visit Manitoba, adding that personal connections, interactions and experiences facilitate an understanding of residential schools that cannot be achieved by reading or hearing about the system.
"So much of it is about listening and learning," Goertzen said.
The Progressive Conservatives requested minor amendments to the NDP motion to show that the invitation came from elected officials regardless of party affiliation.
"This place can be powerful, in a very meaningful way, when we do it together across party lines," Goertzen said.
» firstname.lastname@example.org, with files from the Free Press
» Twitter: @The_ChelseaKemp
Chelsea Kemp, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Brandon Sun