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“Our lives were controlled by the school,” says residential school survivor chosen to represent the Yukon in Rome

Adeline Webber will leave for a meeting with the Pope on December 14.

Adeline Webber (left) receives the Lifetime Achievement Award at the AFN Leadership Awards in 2019 (CHONfm file photo).

In just under two weeks, a group of 13 First Nation delegates from across Canada will travel to Vatican City to meet with Pope Francis.


Assembly of First Nations Northwest Territories Regional Chief Norman Yakeleya will be the lead delegate for the trip to Rome where the group will have one hour with the Pope to talk about the importance of Indigenous culture and the Catholic Church’s role in residential schools.


Adeline Webber of the Kukhhiittan Clan of the Teslin Tlingit Nation will be there representing the Yukon. She never knew she was being considered to represent the territory until she got a phone call from Assembly of First Nations Yukon Regional Chief Kluane Adamek saying she was chosen.


“I was totally shocked,” Webber laughed as she told CHONfm.


Webber is a survivor of the Whitehorse Indian Baptist Mission School. She went there at the age of five, one month after her father passed away in 1952. She left in 1960 when the school closed down. Her mother lived in Whitehorse but could only visit on Wednesdays to help with mending. Sometimes Webber was not allowed to see her mom on weekends.


“Our lives were controlled by the school,” said Webber.


“Everything was very different than being in your own loving home,” she added.


“Indigenous languages in Canada and the culture were disrespected and condemned and in fact, outlawed,” Webber continued.


The residential school system spilt up Webber’s family. One of her brothers was sent to the Choutla School in Carcross where he died at five years old. Webber now hopes to find him as she chairs the recently established Choutla Working Group, a group that aims to search for potential remains at the school site in the spring.


Webber’s other brother was taken to the residential school in Grouard, Alberta. She finally connected with him when he returned home at 16.


“He came back and he struggled for years but then he found some peace anyway, and became a really upstanding citizen in the Teslin community. In fact, before he died a couple of years ago, he was our clan leader and he supplied us with moose meat all the time, and fish,” said Webber.


“Mom always talked about Joe and Albert. We kind of just thought it was the same person, but really it was two different brothers,” she continued.


Webber called the trip to Rome a “once in a lifetime” opportunity.


“I’m looking forward to meeting with the Pope and hearing what his response is, what he has to say, and when I return, I definitely want to share as much as I can with the community and the residential school survivors that are still around,” said Webber.


The Pope is expected to visit Canada in the future. A brief statement issued by the Vatican last week reads, “the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops has invited the Holy Father to make an apostolic journey to Canada, also in the context of the long-standing pastoral process of reconciliation with indigenous peoples. His Holiness has indicated his willingness to visit the country on a date to be settled in due course.”


Webber said she hopes for an apology for the Catholic Church’s role in residential schools when the Pope visits because it would be more meaningful on Canadian soil. Webber also said that words are not enough, she wants action. Action like documents on residential schools being released. Regional Chief Yakeleya agrees.


“While the apology from His Holiness is so important, it’s also important to think about what happens in a post-apology world. That’s part of the reason we’re honoured to have two youth delegates. This gathering is an opportunity to shape the future for our children and their children,” said Regional Chief Yakeleya in a statement.


An apology from the Pope is number 58 on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Calls to Action.


“We call upon the Pope to issue an apology to Survivors, their families, and communities for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children in Catholic-run residential schools,” reads the call.


The group of delegates will leave for the Vatican on December 14 and meet with the Pope on December 20.


Published December 1, 2022. 


Written by: Dylan MacNeil

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