First Nations youth delegate feels weight of responsibility ahead of meeting with the Pope

CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) [Toronto, Canada]

March 26, 2022

By Kate Partridge

‘It’s nerve-wracking, but I’m also looking forward to it, to the discussions we’re going to have’

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

A Dene woman from the Fort Nelson First Nation in northern B.C. is feeling the weight of responsibility as she prepares to travel to the Vatican to represent intergenerational survivors in an audience with the Pope.

Taylor Behn-Tsakoza, 26, is the youth delegate for the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) taking part in the historic meetings set for next week. She is part of a larger group of First Nations peoples, including Inuit and Métis representatives, asking Pope Francis for an apology for the harm done by Roman Catholic-run residential schools. 

“It’s nerve-wracking,” Behn-Tsakoza said. “But I’m also looking forward to it, to the discussions we’re going to have.”

Representing young Indigenous people and her community is a responsibility she doesn’t take lightly. 

As the youth delegate, Behn-Tsakoza will be asking Pope Francis to consider the relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and Indigenous people.

“What does our future relationship look like for us as Canadians, for us as First Nations people and for the next generation that’s going to have to carry on this legacy of reconciliation, healing and truth-telling?”

[Photo: Behn-Tsakoza will be travelling from her home in Fort Nelson, B.C., to the Vatican this weekend. She’s hoping the Pope will apologize for the Catholic Church’s role in residential schools. (Submitted by Taylor Behn-Tsakoza)]

Behn-Tsakoza says she is relying on elders and leaders to keep her grounded on the trip and is staying off social media in order to focus on the task ahead of her.

The visit is also part of a personal journey toward healing. Both her parents were forced to attend the Lower Post residential school near the B.C.-Yukon border. 

Funded by the Canadian government and operated by the Roman Catholic Church, the Lower Post residential school was open from 1951 to 1975, impacting thousands of families. Survivors have shared cases of physical and sexual abuse committed by those who ran the school. 

“I still live with the impacts every single day. They call my generation ‘intergenerational survivors’ and … we also have a story to tell,” said Behn-Tsakoza. 

“I’m really holding up our survivors and our knowledge keepers that are going but also creating space for the story of intergenerational survivors … who are impacted in many ways emotionally.”

It’s a perspective that Rosalie LaBillois of the Eel River Bar First Nation fought to have included. LaBillois is the co-chair of the Assembly of First Nations National Youth Council and is also traveling to Rome as the AFN’s New Brunswick representative.

[Photo: Rosalie LaBillois, of Eel River Bar First Nation, is co-chair of the Assembly of First Nations National Youth Council. She will travel with a delegation of 29 other elders, knowledge keepers, residential school survivors and youth to meet Pope Francis. The delegation is seeking a formal apology for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in running residential schools. (Rosalie LaBillois/Linkedin)]

“We really pushed for having a youth delegate and seeing the importance of not wanting to take space from other survivors but really wanting to advocate for our realities,” said LaBillois.

“We may not have gone through that direct system, but we understand the impacts and the effects and we feel that in our everyday lives.”

In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission called on the Pope to acknowledge and atone for “the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children.” 

Behn-Tsakoza said she’s hopeful an apology will come from this trip, but says the matter won’t be dropped if the Pope refuses.

“I don’t think we will stop until we hear those words.”

In 2019, Behn-Tsakoza was chosen to represent Prince George-Peace River-Northern Rockies in the Daughters of the Vote delegation to Parliament. She was one of dozens of young women who turned their backs to Prime Minister Trudeau in the House of Commons in an act of protest.   

Since completing her degree in 2020, Behn-Tsakoza has been working in her home community of Fort Nelson in land-based education and renewable energy.

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools or by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.