CONTENT/TRIGGER WARNING: Mentions of Indian Residential Schools, Assimilation, Ongoing Harm, Colonial Impacts.
On May 27, 2021, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced the harrowing discovery of the remains of 215 children on the grounds of the former Kamloops Residential School. This national tragedy ultimately opened the floodgates for the unearthing of thousands of similarly clandestine graves since the spring of 2021. Though no secret to Indigenous communities, this event brought the painful legacy of residential schools into the public domain, resulting in the resurgence of reconciliation-focused initiatives nationwide.
Coincidentally, on May 27th, 2021, just hours before this story dominated national headlines, I signed my preliminary employment contract with The Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada (ITAC). Then blissfully unaware of the cultural shift to follow, I saw Indigenous Tourism as merely a broader path to awareness. As an Indigenous digital creator with a penchant for community impact, I took this as a viable career opportunity that could potentially motivate meaningful change. Little did I know, I was blindly stepping into an industry that was actively leaving its mark on the reconciliation movement during a critical era for Indigenous sovereignty.
Not even a year into my employment, this revelation substantiated itself point-blank in the Papal conclave in Rome, where I personally witnessed a historic communal leap towards reconciliation for Indigenous Peoples in Canada. I had the entirety of a transatlantic return flight to reflect on what I was a part of in Italy. Even so, I’m still at a loss for words. Nevertheless, I would like to share my experience to the best of my abilities, along with some candid shots I took on the journey.
At the end of March 2022, an Indigenous delegation embarked overseas to gather with Pope Francis at The Vatican. In addition to including Survivors of residential institutions of genocide, the delegation also included two youth representatives, 13 First Nation delegates representing the AFN, The Métis National Council and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. In traveling to Rome, the AFN challenged the Pope to issue an acknowledgment for the Roman Catholic Church’s claim of a right of domination over everyone and everything, and its role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual violence of First Nations, Inuit and Métis children in Catholic-run residential schools.
But why was I there?
As a recognized leader for Indigenous cultural media and stories, ITAC was honoured with an invitation to support the AFN in this mission, providing both emotional and logistical support throughout this arduous undertaking. Moreover, we carefully assembled and sponsored a group of Indigenous performing artists to commemorate the week-long historical visit through a one-hour cultural presentation to lift the spirits of survivors, and those who fought vigilantly for justice. Grounded by the vision of Dene National Chief, Gerarld Antoine’s guidance in the concept of family, connection, resistance, strength, survival, and celebration, the artists aimed to elevate and support the delegation through impassioned music, drumming, dances, and storytelling that would connect us with our ancestors.
The roster of dancers featured nationally renowned talent, representing diverse regions and Indigenous cultures from coast to coast to coast. The ensemble showcased the talents of Megan Jensen, Lawrence Nayally, Ritt, Thomas Wamiss, Angela Miracle Gladue, Kevin Seesequasis, Theland Kicksnoway, Adrian Dion Harjo, Ascension Harjo and Elder Francis Newman. Accompanying the dancers was an ITAC delegation comprised of Keith Henry (CEO), Choreographer, Marilyn Yadultin Jensen (Board Vice-Chair), Cultural Ambassador, Cecilia Point (Director of Finance), and myself (Digital Marketing Manager and resident photographer). More succinctly, we aptly named our traveling band, “Team Resilience” in honour of the ever-buoyant communal spirit of our people.
From the onset of this journey at the Vancouver International Airport, I could feel the weight of it all gradually set in. I quickly embraced the emotional gravitas of the upcoming week when we were greeted at the gate by orange-adorned community leaders singing The Musqueam Paddle Song (belonging to the late Dominic Point). A palpable sense of solidarity filled the boarding area and established the lasting energy we would carry with us across the Atlantic.
Throw a daylong crossing and subsequent jetlag into the mix and you have the recipe for the inevitable influx of emotional overwhelm. At any rate, Team Resilience had touched down in Italy along with all of the appointed delegates for the Papal meetings. What immediately struck me was just how many Indigenous People I’d see wandering around Rome that week – many of whom were there of their own volition purely out of support for the cause. Walking down the narrow cobblestone streets, it wouldn’t be uncommon to see the face of a familiar stranger in traditional attire, greeting me with a knowing grin that silently acknowledged our mutual efforts.
The initial priority upon arrival was to solidify our venue (A stunning 600-year-old Albergo directly overlooking St. Peter’s Basilica) for our pre-planned performance for the delegates and media, featuring a live stream for our Canadian audiences. That said, the deeply imprinted memories I have of Team Resilience were not rehearsed, nor were they on the initial itinerary. By the time we had arrived in Rome, (two days into the week-long series of meetings at the Vatican) you could see the tacit weight on the shoulders of all of the delegates. With that, the AFN approached us with an important eleventh-hour request. They had asked our performers to wait outside the basilica to champion the delegates into the square with traditional drumming and song. We proudly accepted the invitation.
I will never forget the beautiful juxtaposition of our vibrant regalia over the backdrop of the desaturated, baroque architecture. I will never forget the sound of our beating drums accompanied by our vehement falsetto cries echoing through the gothic corridor. But mostly, I will never forget our indomitable delegates walking into the square with their heads held high, relishing in the unconditional support of their people. At that moment, regardless of the budding outcome of this journey, we were undeniably triumphant as a community.
On April 1st, the final day of the Vatican visit, we returned to our post outside the basilica, primed for our final encore performance. Only this time, minutes before the delegation’s grand entry into the square, we received intel of the news we were anxiously waiting to hear throughout the week. Pope Francis had finally issued a formal apology for the deplorable abuses of residential school systems in Canada. While hearing these words was the primary objective of the trip, the reaction was unanimously layered with bittersweet undercurrents. Even so, we knew that unassailable optimism would be the energy we needed to hail our leaders in the corridor shortly thereafter.
Before we knew it, this unyielding spirit materialized in a momentous hour-long Round Dance encircling the Fontane di Piazza San Pietro. Elevated by the addition of Gerald Antoine himself, our roster of drummers passionately emulated the heartbeats of the children lost with their instruments. All the while, regalia-clad performers took turns artfully brandishing their individual truths, gracing the travertine stone pavement with the likes of their hand-beaded moccasins from their respective homelands. It was apparent to all parties that what was happening was in blatant disregard for the Vatican’s stringent rules and regulations. Nevertheless, we persisted with a conviction that rendered all authorities powerless.
The penultimate act of our impromptu program was The Warrior Women Song (By Martina Pierre of the Lil’wat Nation), fervidly led by my beloved Auntie and colleague, Cecilia Point with accompaniment by her fellow women attendees. A staple of The Vancouver Woman’s March in honour of Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women (MMIW) of the Vancouver eastside, this haunting melody was a sobering reminder that our battle is far from over.
With that in our hearts, we concluded the day with a final eclectic PowWow in the square that highlighted the breadth of diverse devotees in attendance. Despite their apparent unawareness of the events at hand, touring bystanders were taken by our energy and eagerly joined in the ceremony, to which they were welcomed with open arms. The vibrant display of unconditional unity, love, and…well… resilience, is something I’ll undoubtedly hold close to my heart forever.
In 2018, Indigenous artist, Jeremy Dutcher famously said, “We are in the midst of an Indigenous renaissance”. While Italy is no stranger to the concept of a Renaissance, they should count themselves lucky to have bore witness to this particular, triumphant revival at the Vatican. I know that I do.
The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line is available 24-hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of his or her Residential school experience.
For immediate support call 1-800-721-0066.