FOLLOW-UP

The Pope and the Dene

Ann Walmsley March 4 1985
FOLLOW-UP

The Pope and the Dene

Ann Walmsley March 4 1985

The Pope and the Dene

FOLLOW-UP

Ann Walmsley

It was an unusually dense subarctic fog, the first one in weeks, and it descended suddenly only hours before John Paul II was due to arrive. As the Pacific Western Airlines 737 carrying the Pope approached the island outpost of Fort Simpson, N.W.T., for a scheduled stop during his triumphant 12-day Canadian tour last September, 4,000 Inuit, Dene and Métis huddled below on damp blankets praying and glancing skyward. But after the plane circled the village for more than half an hour it became evident that the longawaited historic meeting between the Pope and Canada’s northern native peoples would not take place. As the plane turned toward Yellowknife, disappointed elderly native women cried and gathered up the slippers, paintings and handicrafts that they had made as gifts for their spiritual leader. In Ottawa two days later to board a flight to Rome, John Paul said, “I truly hope God’s providence will give me another occasion to meet with them.”

Two weeks ago three Dene leaders —Stephen Kakfwi, president of the Dene nation; James Antoine, chief of the Fort Simpson Dene; and James Villeneuve, mayor of Fort Simpson—travelled to the Vatican to spur providence and to formally invite the Pope to return to Canada in June. Should the pontiff agree, it will mark the only time that he has visited a non-European country twice within one year. Speaking for the hopeful northern natives, Rev. Camille Piché, a Fort Simpson priest, said, “ I like to think there is something beautiful in store for us.”

The Denes’ pilgrimage to Rome is one of many repercussions from one of the most popular and emotional state visits by any leader to Canada. Nearly two years after the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) and the federal government began the giant organizational j ob that brought a pope to Canada for the first time, the after-effects of his visit are still being felt. Roman Catholic dioceses have begun to pay off the $13.5million debt which they incurred as part of their share of the $50-million cost of the visit. Catholic priests and scholars I only now are beginning the delicate task s of discerning a moral and spiritual di□ rection from the Pope’s numerous mes1 sages to his Canadian followers.

= The failed Fort Simpson meeting was the only major flaw in a tour that shuttied John Paul through 60 events in 12 days. But because of the remoteness of the location and the difficulty of assembling so many northerners in one place, the cancellation was devastating. Three thousand Dene, Métis and Inuit had driven hundreds of kilometres across harsh terrain, chartered planes and buses and boated along frigid rivers to converge on the village of 975 residents, located where the Liard and Mackenzie Rivers join. Many of the elderly pilgrims had spent their life savings to make the trip. But, said Fort Simpson’s 84-yearold matriarch, Celine Lafferty, about the Pope’s non-show: “You could not be angry. It was just the will of God.”

John Paul himself had requested that a stop be included in his hectic itinerary to enable him to meet with Canada’s indigenous peoples. His visit was to have lasted three hours, during which he would have been the guest at a unique native-Catholic spiritual ceremony and delivered a message in support of Canadian natives seeking selfdetermination.

One consolation for Fort Simpson is that at least part of the loss incurred when the Pope failed to arrive will be recovered through an insurance policy taken out by the CCCB. The conference will file an insurance claim for between $500,000 and $800,000 against the nonappearance of the pontiff. Organizers invested $1 million in preparations, in-

eluding nearly $50,000 for a wooden podium topped by a 30-foot-high white open tepee. Another $25,000 was spent erecting a concrete-and-stone commemorative monument depicting a cross, Dene drums and a dome symbolizing igloos and beaver houses. The village of Fort Simpson spent roughly $170,000 building campground sites and an instant tent city for the 200 journalists who flocked to the village. According to Piché, some of the insurance money will be used to reimburse the travel expenses of roughly half of the natives who assembled in Fort Simpson, including

about 100 Fort Norman residents who together spent $15,000 in their attempt to see the Pope.

For the Roman Catholic Church there are even larger debts to resolve. Among the fund-raising efforts by dioceses across the country was a Toronto dinner held last November by Emmett Cardinal Carter, archbishop of Toronto, and attended by such dignitaries as thenOntario Premier William Davis. The occasion generated $200,000 toward Toronto’s $4.5-million bill, spent largely on the Downsview and Ste.-Marie-amongthe-Hurons masses. Quebec City and

Vancouver have already paid their debts to construction companies and other creditors, and in Halifax organizers have raised $60,000 of the $200,000 owed by levying a onetime tax on the city’s parishes. Said Msgr. William Wamboldt, the co-ordinator of the Nova Scotia visit: “Our major mistake was to get involved in a souvenir program after being taken in by high-pressure tactics. It was a total loss.” Indeed, the dismal souvenir sales before and during the visit across Canada have prompted some dioceses to distribute unsold mementos to parishes. The conference will also give away two Canadian-made Popemobiles, each valued at more than $100,000—one to the Museum of Science and Technology in Ottawa and the other to the Pope.

In marked contrast, the CBC has earned substantial profits from the papal tour. Using the hours of colorful television footage that its cameramen collected during the visit, the corporation has produced 10 lively 90-minute video cassettes of the national tour, each focusing on one of the 10 major sites on the Pope’s itinerary. At a cost of $39.95 each, the videos have generated sales of almost $1.3 million. Said Glenn Witmer, CBC Enterprises’ director of publishing: “They have outsold Michael Jackson’s video cassette and the series has gone platinum.” Next month the CBC is releasing a new series featuring seven specific sites on the tour, including the Polish rally at Toronto’s Canadian National Exhibition Stadium and Winnipeg’s Ukrainian service at Saints Vladimir and Olga Cathedral.

But the Catholic church gained in more substantive ways, according to the tour organizers. The results of a Gallup poll released by the conference last January and based on interviews with 1,028 adults showed that 20 per cent of Canadians said the Pope’s visit had changed them, most often by strengthening their faith. Fully 42 per cent said that the tour had caused them to think about spiritual matters more often. And Catholic pastors across the country claim that church attendance has improved markedly since the Pope’s trip. Said Wamboldt: “Catholics who have been dormant are coming forward, and we are amazed at the numbers of people now interested in the priesthood.”

In Fort Simpson the telltale signs of the Pope’s failed mission remain. The podium and monument still stand, now under a protective layer of snow. And many of the native people say they are still optimistic that the pontiff will visit. As Stephen Kakfwi put it, “When I heard the Pope say, T invite myself back again to Canada,’ I knew that the pontiff intended to return to Fort Simpson—that he was really speaking to us.”

With Sandra Souchotte in Yellowknife.

Sandra Souchotte