Women holding cradleboards asked to leave meeting with Pope Francis

Women holding cradleboards asked to leave meeting with Pope Francis

Protective baby carriers meant to represent children who died at residential schools

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

Indigenous women who were carrying cradleboards that they had intended to present to Pope Francis during a private meeting with residential school survivors were asked to leave the room before the pontiff entered.

The event had been scheduled as a moment for survivors from Eastern Canada to meet with the Pope in person at the archbishop's residence on Friday morning in Quebec City, a few hours before the pontiff's departure to Iqaluit.

Jonel Beauvais, a Kanien'kehá:ka Wolf Clan member from Akwesasne, said that while she was able to stay, she had to go to the back.

"They said that they only wanted survivors and not their supporters. So I'm not quite sure why you would invite supporters if they're not allowed to be in the room with the survivors," she said.

Two other women holding cradleboards, which are traditionally used to transport and protect babies, left the room.

"I brought this today to represent every baby that's still in the ground, every baby that's come out, every baby that didn't get to feel the love and affection it was supposed to have gotten," said Beauvais.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that there could be thousands of unmarked graves near the sites of former residential schools. More than 1,000 suspected unmarked graves have been detected in the last year.

Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty of the Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee said the women were already seated when they were asked to leave.

"The staff of Bishop [Gérald Cyprien] Lacroix asked them to leave, so it was quite disappointing," said Gull-Masty, referring to the archbishop of Quebec.

Regional Chief of the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador Ghislain Picard said the way the situation was handled was "completely unacceptable and disrespectful."

He said there were too many clergy members present, when the moment was meant for survivors and those accompanying them.

Lack of space

In an emailed response, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Quebec diocese said some people were asked to leave because there weren't enough seats to accommodate them.

The statement said the delegation that showed up was much larger than what they had initially planned.

"Additional seats were immediately offered to members of the delegation but in an effort to prioritize seats for survivors, some guests weren't able to be present inside the room," the statement says.

Those people were asked to wait in another room, the email said.

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"As an organization, we just wanted to make sure that we could accommodate everyone who wanted to attend," Jasmin Lemieux-Lefebvre, a spokesperson for the organizing committee of the papal visit, told CBC Quebec's Breakaway.

He said when looking at the week as a whole, that was largely accomplished.

"We always tried our best to try to find the right balance and show that survivors are the priority," he said.

Cradleboards presented at Vatican

Another woman who came holding a cradleboard, Michelle Schenandoah, is a member of the Haudenosaunee delegation that met the Pope at the Vatican earlier this year.

She presented the same cradleboard to the Pope at the Vatican, and it was later returned to her.

She says she and Rosalie LaBillois, co-chair of the AFN National Youth Council, were asked to leave the meeting without any explanation.

"They were pretty forceful," she said. The women agreed to leave the room so that elders would have seats.

A moment of exchange

After the Pope gave a short speech, survivors had the opportunity to speak with him.

"I was grateful for the process, for our grandmothers and our grandfathers and our aunties and our uncles because they need what they need and we should always support that in their healing process," said Beauvais.

Beauvais said she told the Pope she appreciated his visit, but also expressed her discontent with the way Indigenous people were treated during his trip.

Picard said that many Indigenous people that attended the meeting wanted more from it. Still, he said he is glad that survivors had a moment to meet the pontiff.

With the Pope returning to the Vatican this evening, it's now up to the Canadian clergy to follow up on his directives to take concrete actions toward reconciliation, Picard said.

Women holding cradleboards asked to leave meeting with Pope Francis