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Williams Lake First Nation councillor witnesses historic apology from Pope Francis

Rick Gilbert is a residential school survivor from St. Joseph’s Mission and currently in Rome

Williams Lake First Nation councillor Rick Gilbert is part of the Inuit, Métis and First Nations delegation from Canada that was at the Vatican on Friday, April 1 to hear Pope Francis issue an apology.

“It sounds pretty good,” Gilbert told Black Press Media Friday morning. “He did say in there he was sorry and was asking for forgiveness.”

Gilbert is a former WLFN chief, a residential school survivor and a practicing Catholic.

He attended St. Joseph’s Mission Residential School located about six kilometres from his home community of Sugar Cane.

While in Rome this week, he missed a visit to his community by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Minister of Crown Indigenous Services Marc Miller on Wednesday, March 30. Part of the event included a ceremony held at the St. Joseph’s site.

READ MORE: ‘I’m here to listen,’: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visits Williams Lake First Nation

Gilbert was sitting in the fourth row in the Vatican when Pope Francis read his address in Italian.

The delegates, however, received paper copies of it in English so they could follow along or read it later, Gilbert said.

The Pontiff asked for God’s forgiveness for the deplorable conduct of some members of the Catholic Church.

“And I join my brothers, the Canadian bishops in asking your pardon.”

Pope Francis also said he will come to Canada, just “not in the winter.”

Gilbert said he is the only one from the Cariboo Chilcotin who is part of the delegation along with Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Chief Roseanne Casimir and at least two of her band members from Kamloops.

While Gilbert did not speak with the Pope himself, he gave Casimir a letter to give to the Pope when she had her audience with him.

“It was one of my stories from the St. Joseph’s Residential School and I wrote about my experience. In the last day or two I thought of giving it to someone who was going to speak directly to the Pope and I ran into Chief Casimir just outside the door before she left for the Vatican and she was pleased to take my letter and present it to the Pope. I imagine he’ll read it at some point or someone will read it to him.”

On Saturday, the delegation will visit the Vatican Museum, which Gilbert said “supposedly” has a lot of important stuff regarding the First Nations in Canada and possibly residential schools.

“A lot of things were shipped to Rome when they first were exploring Canada and the missionaries were establishing themselves there.”

Additionally, Gilbert met with the bishop of the Oblate House at the Vatican.

The Oblates were the Catholic order that established St. Joseph’s Mission in 1886.

“It went really well,” he said of the meeting. “It was supposed to be an hour but went to two hours, mostly with me talking.”

Gilbert shared his experiences with the bishop of residential school, and the abuses that happened there, but he also spoke with him at length about the land the residential school sat on.

Recalling how he was WLFN Chief at the time the school closed in 1981, Gilbert said he was friends with the head of the Oblates in B.C. Father John Brioux.

“He informed me that the Oblates had an opportunity to get 14 acres back on which the residential school buildings were sitting. When the government first got into establishing residential schools, missionaries at St. Joseph’s already had a school established but it was for non-Native ranchers and farmers in the area’s children. It was considered an industrial school.”

When the government decided to designate schools for First Nations children, they approached the Oblates at the mission and asked them if they would do it because they already had the school there.

“Apparently they weren’t doing so well with getting the numbers of children there to make it feasible so they accepted. One of the conditions was the government had to buy or lease 14 acres so they made a deal between the Oblates and the Government of Canada that they would buy the 14 acres plus all the buildings that sat on those 14 acres for one dollar.”

There was a condition that it would be the Oblates to use only if the residential school was there for the education of First Nations children and when it stopped being used for that, the land would be returned to the Oblates for one dollar.

Gilbert said in conversation with Father Brioux around 1981/82, he learned the government had offered to return it to the Oblates.

“He told me that they rejected taking back that 14 acres for one dollar because they did not want to be bothered with the politics that was happening with the First Nations at that time so it remained with the government.”

After that the government, through the Department of Indian Affairs at the time, made an offer to the whole tribal council which included 15 bands at the time, to buy the 14 acres including all the buildings.

The WLFN - Williams Lake Indian Band at the time - indicated to the tribal council that it was in their territory and the land should go to them, Gilbert recalled, adding the tribal council signed a council resolution supporting that fact.

“I had written to the government and the Catholic Church saying we wanted that land back and handed over to the Williams Lake Band.”

When the offer came it was for $80,000, which Gilbert said the band could not afford.

“They knew we had no ability to access that kind of money. They gave us a time limit to make that decision and of course we couldn’t. Time went by and they offered it for sale to someone else.”

Eventually it was offered to the ranch which the Oblates had sold to private interests and the ranch owners bought it.

“That is one of the grievances we have as the WLFN and I brought that up with the Oblate Bishop I met with yesterday.”

Gilbert asked the bishop to commit and send a letter in writing to confirm he’d heard Gilbert’s concerns, and commit to getting that land returned to WLFN even if it included the Catholic Church working with the Canadian government.

“He agreed to do whatever he could and sent me an email today acknowledging that we had met. He said letters from Rome could take up to four months, but I told him he could send me one by email and make sure one on paper was sent so I can have it for our records.”

On Monday, April 4 Gilbert will depart to return home to Sugar Cane.

Gilbert is staying close to the Vatican in the centre of Rome and said there is a bus for the delegates to use and they have been on some good tours.

Here he blows a kiss for his wife Anna Gilbert back home.

READ MORE: Pope Francis apologizes to Indigenous delegates for Canada’s residential schools

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Monica Lamb-Yorski

About the Author: Monica Lamb-Yorski

A B.C. gal, I was born in Alert Bay, raised in Nelson, graduated from the University of Winnipeg, and wrote my first-ever article for the Prince Rupert Daily News.
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