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Who’s the guy next to Phil Fontaine?

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“Who is the guy next to Joe Gagnon? The answer to this joke that my father loved when I was a child was “the pope”. I was laughing. I loved the idea that a local star could eclipse in stardom – if only for a second – one of the most recognizable faces on the planet.

This joke came to my mind last week. I was on a family vacation in Rome when I saw a photo of Phil Fontaine, the former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, in audience with Pope Francis. “Who is the guy next to Phil Fontaine? I thought.

Except this time it wasn’t a joke.

Last Friday, the moral authority in the last papal audience with the large Canadian indigenous delegation was not Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the Argentine clergyman who became pontiff in 2013, but Phil Fontaine, the first Canadian Indigenous leader to break the silence on the horrors of residential schools and who has been on a quest for truth and justice ever since. A quest that has lasted 31 years and that has, in many ways, transformed Canada.

In 1991, it was on the airwaves of CBC that Phil Fontaine testified for the first time and with immense modesty of the “physical, psychological” abuse as well as “deprivation and sexual abuse” that he and his peers had suffered in the Fort Alexander Indian residential school, run by Oblate Catholics.

“When I testified at the very beginning, I had no idea of ​​the repercussions of this testimony. What was important to me was that what happened in residential schools finally be public. I wanted an investigation. Since then, it’s been a long road. We never gave up, never lost hope,” he told me this week from his home in Calgary.

“I wanted someone to accept responsibility for what had happened and for that person to say: I’m sorry. At the time, I didn’t think the pope was going to apologize in Rome and then come and do it on Canadian soil,” the Ojibway leader, now 77, says of the pledge. of the Pope to come to Canada in the coming months.

Phil Fontaine took nothing for granted, but he worked hard to finally get the pope to apologize. After all, it was Catholic organizations which, with the consent of the Canadian government, operated three-quarters of the 139 residential schools which, from 1850 to 1996, had as their main objective the acculturation of more than 150,000 Aboriginal children. At least 4,100 children have died in these terrible schools, run by religious communities but funded by the state.

In 2009, Chef Fontaine traveled to Rome to meet Benedict XVI. At the time, he had just signed a historic agreement with the Canadian government to compensate more than 28,000 survivors and set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

In the Vatican, faced with the overwhelming facts, the pope had expressed his “sorrow” at the deplorable conduct of some members of the Church, but had not apologized.

Phil Fontaine and his allies, particularly within the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, have not given up. In 2018, they suffered a first setback with Pope Francis. Despite a request from Justin Trudeau, the Holy Father initially considered himself “unable to respond to the request for an apology” in 2018. Three years earlier, however, he had apologized to the Indigenous peoples of Bolivia for the immense wrongs caused during the colonial era.

The horrifying discovery of unmarked children’s graves near former Indian residential schools in the west of the country seems to have shaken the Vatican as much as the rest of the world, and last year the Canadian delegation received a new invitation to go to the Vatican.

Before addressing delegates on 1er April, the pope listened for four hours to the stories of the survivors. “These private meetings were very special. We had the opportunity to speak our truth. The pope responded to what he heard,” says Phil Fontaine, who believes deeply in the healing virtues of apologies.

“That’s what a lot of us want, healing,” he adds. It is in this perspective that he will suggest to the Pope important places to visit when he comes to Canada: Saint-Boniface, Winnipeg, Kamloops, places marked by Aboriginal history and by the suffering inflicted on them.

I was in St. Peter’s Square when the indigenous delegation left the papal audience last Friday. Right after the long-awaited apology. There was pride and relief on the faces of the Inuit, Métis and First Nations leaders who spoke. Phil Fontaine was one of them.

Moved, I fought somehow the feeling of the impostor. A feeling to be avoided, believes the Ojibwe leader. “I think all Canadians should seize this moment and celebrate this journey of ours with us. There is still a lot of work to be done to achieve true reconciliation, to make Canada a better country, he notes. To accept an apology is not to grant an absolution. »

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