ROME — The head of the Manitoba Métis Federation said his group’s meeting with Pope Francis was an emotional encounter centered on reconciliation between the Indigenous community and the Catholic Church.
“It was such a touching moment for all of us,” said David Chartrand, president of the federation. “Many shed tears, many cried. I was nervous, and I speak to the thousands of people all over in my journey as a politician. But there, I was humble and nervous to speak before him.”
Speaking with journalists after the April 21 meeting, Chartrand said the 55-member delegation was moved by the pope’s sincerity, especially when listening to a survivor recalling the suffering he endured at one of many Catholic-run residential schools, where Indigenous languages and cultural expressions were banned and where many students experienced abuse.
“The tears that were shed in there, the stories that were exchanged back and forth, His Holiness accepted them with such grace, and we were so touched when he asked for forgiveness from us,” Chartrand said.
While the Métis people are spread throughout Canada, the federation’s members, widely known as the Red River Métis, are centered primarily in Manitoba. The group is a federally recognized organization and not part of the Métis National Council due to a dispute regarding the definition of who is considered a part of the Indigenous group.
During the meeting, the delegation, accompanied by Archbishop Richard Gagnon of Winnipeg, presented Pope Francis with a collection of hand-crafted beadwork that “goes back 200-300 years.”
“Our beadwork is a story of who we are,” Chartrand told journalists. “We gave him crosses that were beaded as the style of the 1800s, and he was very touched by it, and he looked at them. I would say, he was touched by the kindness of our people to give him a gift.”
He also said the pope was presented a pair of slippers to wear “from our culture, from our people.”
During an April 1 audience with representatives of the Métis National Council, the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and the Assembly of First Nations, Pope Francis responded positively to a request to visit Canada and apologize there for the church’s role in running residential schools.
Pope Francis told the representatives he would like to join them during the popular Lac Ste. Anne Pilgrimage, scheduled this year for July 25-28, northwest of Edmonton, Alberta.
Chartrand said he asked the pope to visit Winnipeg during his papal trip “to bless the grave of our great leader, Louis Riel,” the 19th-century founder of the Manitoba province who led a resistance movement against the Canadian government and fought for the territorial rights of the Métis people.
After the Canadian military put down an uprising, Riel was captured, found guilty of treason and executed in 1885.
“I want him to visit my province of Manitoba. I want him to bless the grave site of Louis Riel, who was a devoted Catholic leader and was executed and murdered in my country by the government,” he said.
However, he also acknowledged the challenges due to the possibility of a brief visit as well as the pope’s health, particularly his knee problems.
During their meeting, Chartrand said he was impressed by the pope’s energy despite his difficulty walking.
“You can see that the pope is limping,” he said. “And I was so touched by him. He got off his chair and wanted to come to us. And I told him, ‘Sit down, we’ll come to you.’ It was so nice to see the pope with such energy and enthusiasm and pride.”
Chartrand added that the pope’s presence in Winnipeg and blessing Riel’s grave would be a powerful sign of a reconciliation and partnership between the Métis people and the Catholic Church.
“We need to support the Vatican to keep our churches open,” Chartrand said. “We are worried about the churches that are closing down in Canada, and we need them to stay open, and we’re asking the Vatican to help us.”
The Manitoba Métis Federation, he added, will also “put our finances behind it to make sure we can keep our churches alive, to help us in our culture, in our ceremonies.”
Chartrand said the group’s meeting with Pope Francis was a memorable day for the Indigenous community and the start of a path toward healing and renewal.
“It was a great day for the Métis of the Red River, and we’re very proud and very honored for the pope to accept us in his beautiful home,” he said.