A view of the papal visit, Part 1: old ladies vs…

In other news, took my auntie to see the papal ‘special presentation’ for/at Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples, perhaps the most syncretic RC church extant in Canada, right here in the heart of the inner city, where the damage from the colonial policies of forced assimilation so vigorously overseen by the Roman Catholic Church is on display every day in painful and dismaying ways. 

Today, under a mix of sun and showers, witness a ratio of fully armed police to civilians of about 4 to 1 (not accounting for plainclothes security or possible hidden marksmen of last recourse).

I saw at least 4 kinds of armoured vehicles, plus a parade of cop motorbikes, plus air power.

The motorcade entered via a ‘parade route’ lined with double rows of fences, so if you were ‘invited’ as we were, to witness the pope’s arrival, you were herded into a narrow space with fences front and back, penned in decisively, with the front fence lined with a row of battle dressed RCMP standing legs braced, arms crossed, grim faced before you. 

Lest all these precautions not be enough, the pope’s jaunty white Fiat was flanked by armoured SUVs, riot wagons, and jacked up black pickups, such that when he alighted, we could only catch a glimpse of his white cap if we peered past the fence, the line of RCMP, two rows of large black armoured vehicles, and a cadre of assorted handlers.

Most of the civilians were old ladies. 

For these people, the pope said, in Spanish with French and English subtitles – not a ‘tansi’ nor other shred of Indigenous language to be heard – how he was there to apologize for the bad apples who didn’t do the mission right. How sad it was that Indians “were made to feel inferior” because our culture wasn’t respected, when in fact our culture is enough like biblical things that it’s really okay for it to exist. 

For instance, we use teepees, and the Israelites first worshipped in tents when they were in exile in the desert. 

He did not mention the dead children in their thousands on the grounds of the schools as the greater problem than ‘feeling inferior’, but did refer to them… he instructed us that we should see, in those students, Christ crucified. And since Christ crucified is the heart of (his) religion, those students could be reconciled as some manner of blessing. No offer to canonize them, mind you, they weren’t personally-worthy martyrs, just a personalized reminder that no death save Christ’s matters.

As the Sacred Heart church band played and sang their country gospel hymns, the pontiff sat expressionless. The singers could be seen swaying slightly with the intensity, eyes closed, reaching for their very best notes, their most fulsome expression of spiritual yearning, and they sounded pretty good. The pontiff could be seen dropping his heavy head into his palm, waiting for them to be done.

He did smile, slightly, when the line of tribute gifts began, Indigenous folks young and old dressed in their best and brightest clothes, bringing arts and crafts to offer him, while the Métis fiddle student chosen for the honour played ‘Chase me Charlie’* among other jaunty tunes.

Auntie and I had been enduring it by commenting sotto voce all through (okay I did shout ‘what about the murders?’ when he droned the bit about ‘being made to feel inferior’ cause our ‘culture wasn’t respected’ – and some guy in the back yelled ‘show some respect’ and I retorted ‘mah; him first’, but we were mostly sotto voce).

When the group bearing a beautiful star blanket came forward, I cracked up. Auntie had been guessing what was in the little boxes the gift-bearers were handed in exchange for their works of art – ‘box of candy, five bucks’ – but this was several people together. ‘What if he decided to cut loose and climb onto that blanket and they started playing blanket toss?’ and we chuckled at the absurd image of the sombre old white clad face of power suddenly assenting to being gently, playfully bounced by a human-powered trampoline, in the old northern traditional game.

That didn’t happen. But then again, neither had he surprised the crowd by appearing out of one of the helicopters to descend a la James Bond, but with his white robes flapping like angel wings. Nor did he spare the gathered trickle (we couldn’t be called a throng) a ‘Howdy!’ as he was bundled like a barrel of contraband into the church on arrival.

Nor did he, that we could discern, really acknowledge the issues – murder, rape, abuse – though he did say that the church ought not to assimilate by force, but by building welcoming places where people could draw near to its goodness. I wonder how he said that with a straight face, barricaded behind fences, riot police, armoured vehicles… maybe that was why he looked just plain tired and bored.

We were all invited to go back into our barricaded alley to ‘watch the pope depart’ but Auntie and I just said, ‘nah, we’re done here,’ and strutted out the way we came in, through the gym’s back door, passing out commentary and thanks to volunteers and fellow bystanders to this bit of imperial history.

We’d been seated, for the record, in the overflow (or road-allowance, if you will) as apparently the main sanctuary was fully booked – though, as the video feed scanned the assembly, I felt I’d seen the church sanctuary fuller on a good mass Sunday when old Father Jim was in the house, back when this was my late mom’s parish whenever she stayed with us in the city.

I’d seen it emptier too – In that sanctuary, Father Jim invited me to perform a show with my Indigenous youth theatre group, in exchange for letting us rehearse in the basement. (The show was a massive flop, as theatre audiences weren’t thronging to see Aboriginal – the term then in vogue – theatre in an inner city locale, but we did it anyway). There was a good turn out for the variety show and feast we put on in the basement. And there was a tremendous turn out for Elijah Harper when he came through town after using his Member of Parliament powers to derail the Meech Lake Accord.

But we had decided late that we ought to go see the pope, in honour of our mothers, in witness for the relatives who couldn’t or wouldn’t be there, so we were in the overflow. I knew it was pointless showiness to chide the onscreen image of the pope – he couldn’t hear me, and the gym was sparsely peppered with us leftovers, latecomers and insufficiently prestigious folks plus some kind volunteers, including Indigenous mental health workers, there to deal with anyone who might break down in tears. ** They’d even parked a couple of ambulances between the gym and the church proper, though those might also have been in case someone needed to shoot an old lady.

We strutted out, past those ambulances, leaving ahead of the pope for our own amusement since he would never know. We drew alongside an armoured SUV with its back window filled by a ventilated black metal grill.

Behind the grill, a K9 officer, evidently as done with the pointless tension of the whole thing as we were, suddenly fired a volley of loud barks at us. In perfect tandem, we turned and roared back ‘Ah, shut up!’

And we proceeded, laughing albeit a little ragily, through the surreal sunshine down to Spinellis for a revivifying tea.

A moment here to thank Michelle from SHCFP for adding us to the invite list when I went by the rectory on Thursday evening to see if there were any chance of a spot. I hope she’ll not feel we abused her graciousness by drawing upon the power of mockery in order to sit through the whole thing in witness.

All My Relations anyhow


*so said the lady in front of me, and I am not sure she thought that as seditiously funny a repertoire choice as I did.

** ‘Why would I cry?” Auntie retorted when they offered her a bag and Kleenex on reentry after the motorcade arrived; I’d lagged behind to chat with an RCMP officer about how this whole scenario was built, and how he felt facing down a bunch of old ladies along with armoured vehicles, fences, dogs, air power and a multinational militia. I’m glad I took the time, and glad he did, too. More on that another time.

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