Dr. Wilton Littlechild of Maskwacis, a residential school survivor and former commissioner for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), gave his thoughts on the papal visit, the transition to a new monarch, and the future of reconciliation in an interview with Ponoka News.
Littlechild travelled to the Vatican with a delegation to visit with Pope Francis in April and was the main spokesperson when the pope visited Maskwacis on July 25.
Littlechild said the apology Pope Francis gave on that occasion was a direct response to Call to Action number 58 of the TRC.
“As a former commissioner, I heard several hundred times from witnesses who testified from lived experience the importance of an apology in order for them to heal from various harms they suffered as children while in these institutions,” said Littlechild.
“It is important to state that yes there were good experiences too and an apology is but one step of a long journey to reconciliation.
“As to assessment, an apology is only one element of a spectrum, for example, one needs to consider the power of forgiveness.”
Littlechild said since the pope’s visit, many people have expressed their thanks to him for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“Again, it needs to be stated not everyone was happy but I believe the full impact is much too early to assess. The apology was received by a great number as being sincere, heartfelt, truly humble and honest. As a result, the healing has started, forgiveness expressed but admittedly we have a long way to go.”
An action criticized by some, Littlechild explained that he chose to give one of his headdresses to Pope Francis because in their tradition as various peoples, tribes and nations, they are a gifting people.
“To receive an eagle feather is one of our highest ways to honour someone in a blessing way.”
When the delegation met with the Pope in Rome he was given a traditional name in ceremony by a spiritual leader and Elder.
After Maskwacis was chosen to be one of the sites he would visit in Canada, the host committee discussed what could be given to him to thank him.
“So it was natural to rely on our Cree culture matching his high office as the head of the Catholic faith to gift him a headdress.
“He had repeatedly asked for pardon and I was chosen — blessed really — to give him my headdress as a gesture of forgiveness.”
Littlechild himself spent 14 years in three residential schools. He was taken from his grandparents when he was six years old, from whom he had received a traditional upbringing.
He further stated that as part of the court-ordered TRC, a part of the settlement agreement was to forge a path to have better relations among all parties.
“Personally, it was an act of forgiveness and a gesture of reconciliation for what happened to me as a child, but most importantly, maybe a selfish desire to heal and at the same time to give thanks for many blessings.”
He said for true reconciliation to happen, two things need to occur: first for individuals to read all 94 calls to action and listen for the one that speaks to you and commit to implementing it, and second, for everyone to work together to implement the Calls to Action to restore respectful relationships.
“The one top priority must be “working together.”
The work of reconciliation is commencing right at home, as the former residential school site is now being investigated using ground penetrating radar. The work has only been about one-third completed of all the locations that need to be searched.
“I volunteered to push the ground penetrating radar machines myself in designated areas,” said Littlechild.
“All the while I was pushing, I was praying I would not find any missing children or children who died at my school in an unmarked grave.”
The TRC found over 4000, who we identified and 1,200 who could not identify.
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On a more personal experience, he said they repatriated the remains of 17 unmarked graves.
“We have sacred laws as to what we are to do in the event of death so we were able to do our traditional custom.”
The coffins were simply marked with “seven-year-old boy” or “nine-year-old girl”
“After our traditional four-day ceremony, I chose to carry a ‘six-year-old boy’ to the graveyard for a proper burial because that’s how old I was when I was taken.”
Then, as it customary to have a last meal for the departed, they had a feast. Sacred prayer ceremonies are held throughout and repeated for four years on the date of death thereafter.
“For all those that lost loved ones as they never made it home, it can be very traumatic as they are not able to follow our ways,” said Littlechild.
“That is partly why I was praying that the results will come back negative.”
He added he can’t comment on the searches in Ermineskin until the work is completed.
“There are some of the view that we should leave the departed to rest and not be interfering in any way,” he said.
“So either way, it is very very emotional, so far.”
Littlechild said he has been able to locate his grandparents, siblings and other relatives whose grave sites are marked but has not yet found his mother.
As for the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, he said he commends her, as she apparently sent her personal condolences to the families of the James Smith First Nation who were mourning from the 10 deaths and 18 who were injured.
Littlechild said he saw the queen in person six times in his lifetime.
“But most importantly we have a sacred agreement with the Crown: Treaty No. 6, a Peace Treaty,” he said.
“My positive outlook for Crown-Indigenous relations moving forward with King Charles III will be one of peaceful co-existence grounded by an advancement of reconciliation.
“I look forward to our first meeting as he is an honourary Chief with a Cree and a Blackfoot name given in ceremony. So we should meet soon and map out a path forward together for reconciliation.
“Given that, all our relations will improve according to the original spirit and intent of Treaty ‘so long as the sun shines, the grasses grow and the rivers flow.’”