The Pope visited Métis Elder Tony Belcourt’s home community of Lac Ste. Anne, Alta., on Tuesday. Canada’s National Observer spoke to Belcourt about his feelings on the visit and the Pope’s apology to Indigenous Peoples for the forced assimilation and abuse at residential schools.
Warning: This story contains distressing details. If you require emotional support, please contact the 24-hour Residential School Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419.
Elder Tony Belcourt, a Métis leader and activist whose work was instrumental in gaining his people their rights as Indigenous Peoples, says “it was a scary sight” when he saw Pope Francis bless his home community of Lac Ste. Anne. It brought back memories of his childhood, when he and the other kids were afraid each time the local bishop came to the community.
They knew what the bishop was going to say each time, Belcourt says. They were talked down to, called heathens and sinners, told they were going to hell and would die in purgatory. The patronizing, painful tone marked a great hypocrisy for Belcourt.
Indigenous Peoples were treated differently by the Catholic Church, Belcourt says.
When he was a child, pilgrimages to Lac Ste. Anne — a sacred healing place for First Nations, Métis and Catholics alike — were segregated. They were barred from attending the non-Indigenous pilgrimage day.
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Instead, a separate Indigenous-specific pilgrimage day would occur in the middle of the week. Indigenous Peoples would then clear out from the mission grounds a day later to make way for the non-Indigenous pilgrims the following Sunday. When Belcourt was older, he attended the non-Indigenous pilgrimage, called French Day, to see what it was about.
“The attitude was completely different. It was all about, ‘Oh, you wonderful children of God.’ When you hear that being said to other people, when you know what you’ve heard all your life, it’s maddening,” Belcourt says.
Belcourt believes that treatment returned when the Pope visited Lac Ste. Anne, where the Métis have lived for centuries. The absence of the sounds of the fiddle, a sacred symbol of culture and identity for the Métis, was jarring.
“Our people weren’t even there. Leaders of our community were not involved in the welcoming of the entourage,” Belcourt says. “They certainly didn’t want to hear the sounds of our fiddle, which they called the devil’s instrument, which they admonished us for ever playing.”
Grand Chief George Arcand, Chief Tony Alexis and Métis Nation of Alberta president Audrey Poitras walked and sat alongside Pope Francis during his visit to Lac Ste. Anne. However, no leaders from the Métis community of Lac Ste. Anne played a central role in the procession or on stage.
Belcourt was insulted by the lack of celebration of Métis culture. The Pope did wear a Métis sash during his homily, but without a greater engagement with his local community, Belcourt felt like it was a hollow and empty gesture.
“It’s fine chiefs were there, but you would never know it was a Métis community,” he says.
“It’s like words that have no action. It’s all meaningless.”
The presence of a Métis sash on the Pope, a cultural symbol, felt like a “big, positive public relations gesture” to give a semblance of action from the Church, he adds.
Belcourt doesn’t doubt the Pope is a good man, but the Church is a massive multinational organization with tremendous global political and economic influence, according to Mohawk writer Thaiorénióhté Dan David. It all left a taste of bad faith in Belcourt’s mouth.
It’s a sentiment that extends to the Pope’s apology on Monday, which Belcourt says didn’t go far enough into the role the Church played in destroying families for generations through the creation of residential schools.
Over 130 government-funded, church-run residential schools — more than half of which were run by the Catholic Church — were established to sever children from their families and assimilate and shame them for their culture, language and spirituality. At least 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children attended the schools, according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC).
“You can’t use the apology to simply blame someone else. Yes, the government and its policies are culpable. But where did these policies stem from?” he asks.
“These policies stem from papal bulls and the Doctrine of Discovery and that whole attitude of Terra Nullius that has come down for five centuries. It’s ingrained in western culture. They feel that they’re dominant over everything, and over all of our people.
“So, all right. The Government of Canada and the prime minister at the time wanted to take the Indian out of the child. Well, they were speaking words that emanate from the doctrines of the Church … for the Pope not to acknowledge that the Church itself, that institution, is wrong, was wrong and continues to be wrong.”
Belcourt understands the importance the apology may have had for some residential school survivors and those suffering from the intergenerational effects of that trauma.
But Belcourt is looking for real action — like funding for healing and treatment centres and engagement with his people in the returning of land. For example, he says one of his ancestors left land in a will for the community that somehow ended up in the hands of the Church.
It was a tough week for Belcourt and other Indigenous Peoples. But he says he had mixed emotions over the Pope’s visit to Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples in Edmonton. Belcourt was raised with Catholic songs, masses and prayers and says he can’t help but feel nostalgic.
“In the case of Sacred Heart, it’s a church that is recognizing and blending in our traditional spiritual ways and values,” he says. “For me, I felt very positively emotional about all of that; I love to see my people, my relations, in that crowd.”
Belcourt wants the Church — whether through Sacred Heart or through others providing support to Indigenous Peoples — to offer financial support to encourage healing.
“If you want to set things right, that’s the way to do it.”
— With files from Rochelle Baker
Matteo Cimellaro / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer