Phil Fontaine and his wife Kathleen Mahoney walk arm in arm up the cobblestone street from Rome into Vatican City. They pause at the border between them and glance at a dazzling and familiar sight — St. Peter’s Basilica, one of the holiest Catholic shrines in the world.
“Here we are in 2022, and I think this one is a special moment with great expectations and hopes,” says Fontaine, peering beneath the brim of a brown fedora.
“I think this particular trip is different from previous excursions.”
In 2009, Fontaine walked up the very same cobblestone road to meet Pope Benedict XVI. In a private audience, he and four Indigenous delegates shared their heart-wrenching experiences of Canada’s residential schools, most of which were run by the Catholic Church.
In many ways, that historic delegation is similar to the one in Rome now — 32 First Nations, Inuit and Métis representatives have private meetings with Pope Francis this week. In their one-hour audiences, they too, will share stories and press the Holy See for atonement.
Much has changed in the 13 years between these trips. Fontaine believes the Vatican is ready to take more substantive action toward reconciliation this time, and at long last, deliver a heartfelt apology in Canada that will open the door to healing for many survivors.
The world shifted on May 27, 2021, when Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc revealed the harrowing presence of 215 unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in their traditional territories in southern British Columbia.
Indigneous peoples have always known about Le Estcwéy̓ — the missing children — but the discovery shocked many Canadians who had not understood the true impact of state and church-sponsored assimilation imposed on Indigenous peoples. The gruesome details of Canada’s colonization were revealed. In part, it’s why Fontaine believes the 2022 delegation to Rome will achieve a number of its goals, including a papal apology in their homeland.
“It put Canada before the eyes of the world,” he says, standing in St. Peter’s Square as tourists stop to take photos of him being interviewed in front of cameras. “Without a doubt, the 215 unmarked graves in Kamloops is a pivotal moment.”
Many Indigenous delegates have identified Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc’s tragedy as a catalyst for the the 2022 delegation meetings with the Holy Father, who indicated his willingness to make an “apostolic journey” to Canada as hundreds of other burial sites were detected at former school sites across the country.
Unlike 2009, this delegation is equipped with genocidal findings from the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the 2019 National Inquiry Into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Fontaine says the group of survivors, elders, knowledge keepers, leaders and youth further packs a powerhouse of knowledge that gives them an edge.
“They’re better educated … their world view is different from ours back then and theirs is a very expansive perspective,” the former Assembly of First Nations national chief explains.
“It’s different and significant changes will emerge as part of this, and those changes will include this story, but it won’t be the only story. It can’t be the only story.”
Fontaine’s daughter Maya, and adult granddaughters Aluk and Ella Fontaine Richardson, are part of an expanded group of more than 170 people who will meet Pope Francis in a collective audience on Friday that will be closed to the public.
It’s a life-changing experience, say his granddaughters, to enter their mishoomis’ (grandfather’s) world and gain new appreciation for the diplomacy and politics they grew up observing as children.
“Seeing it all and just the historical significance of being here — being a part of this — it’s really amazing, it’s an amazing opportunity,” says Ella, next to her sister in front of the Basilica.
“I hope it gives inspiration to Indigenous youth all over the world that you can be places, you can be in important events and you deserve to be there as well.”
Ella and Aluk are now writing their own stories. Ella is working for Global Affairs Canada at the United Nations in New York. Aluk is planning to go to law school, inspired by her mishoomis.
“So much of his life has been done in public service … he always inspired me to give something of myself to other people,” says Aluk. “I want to work in international law and I was largely motivated by what he’s done for Indigenous peoples.”
Fontaine has left his mark on many of the groundbreaking developments in Indigenous justice and reconciliation that paved the way for his daughter and granddaughters to be here. He was not the first survivor to shed light on the blood-stained truth of the church and state-sponsored residential schools, but his words reverberated at a time when few wanted to listen.
“I didn’t think beyond the moment,” he says of his catalyzing interview about institutions of assimilation with the CBC’s Barbara Frum in 1990.
In the seven-minute, televised segment, the Sagkeeng First Nation man — then head of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs — described the scale and nature of some of the abuse that took place in the schools, including his own, Fort Alexander Indian Residential School and Assiniboia Indian Residential School in Manitoba.
“I didn’t know what to expect, but it was clear to me that the story of the residential school experience had to be told. We had to have our stories recorded for posterity. There had to be an inquiry and an apology.”
Fontaine continued to move the needle in the years that followed. He served three terms as national chief of the AFN, and helped negotiate the landmark Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement in 2006, which included a multi-billion dollar package with compensation and support for survivors, and the formation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
A quick online search establishes him as a leading advocate of the successful resistance of the Meech Lake Accord, and connects him to the creation of self-governance frameworks for Manitoba First Nations, the $94.6-million land claim settlement for the Kahkewistahaw First Nation in Saskatchewan, and more. He has 18 honorary doctorates and too many awards to list.
Like other Indigenous leaders asked to reflect on their accomplishments, Fontaine consistently credits his family, community and “other, more courageous people” who inspired him. He seldom utters “I” instead of “we.”
Aluk and Ella describe Fontaine as a warm and loving man with a great sense of humour, and a sweet tooth they indulged in together during visits to see him in Ottawa.
“I would wake up with him and he would make me oatmeal and let me put as much brown sugar on it as I wanted,” Ella recalls. “Then sometimes we would go down to the bakery and get croissants and other baked goods and bring them back.
“He always just had endless time for us … even though he had his time split between so many other things.”
Maya, their mother and Fontaine’s daughter, says her father has become happier over the years, “moving forward in the time that works for him.” He’s always busy “working hard to make it happen” and she is proud to be there supporting him.
“My sincere wish is, he gets the apology that’s so important to him,” she tells Global News in the piazza. “I feel that the survivors need to be successful in their own aims.
“If they feel that they have achieved the recognition and acknowledgment that they need and deserve, then I will feel that’s a successful outcome.”
As Fontaine prepares to meet a Pope for the second time on Thursday, he’s keenly aware that Indigenous peoples around the world and other survivors of church abuse are watching them closely. His message to them, he says, is to never give up hope.
“There is just so much public attention (on) the plight of Indigenous peoples worldwide,” he says, noting Ukraine’s Indigenous peoples — Crimean Tatars, Karaites and Krymchacks — are fleeing Russia’s violent invasion of their territories as the Vatican visit takes place.
In 2009, Fontaine wasn’t seeking perfection from the Church, and despite all of the progress that’s been made over the years, he isn’t seeking it now.
“There isn’t anything that’s perfect. There’s always a flaw that some people will find, but aside from that, this moment here is of critical importance to us, to our story, to our place in Canada. I’m convinced we will emerge stronger than we’ve become.”
At this stage, much has been written about a papal apology, a recent $30-million commitment to reconciliation by Canadian Catholic bishops, and other possible outcomes of their visit to Rome.
Asked what comes next for him personally, Fontaine — now 77 — jokes, “at my age, run a marathon.”
“That’s a really tough question for me to answer, to be quite honest. I just hope that I enjoy a healthy life, that I’m able to do — with my family, my wife, grandchildren and kids — the things that I missed out on when I was growing up.”
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