Lorelei Williams raised her fist high in the air in front of the Vatican, while St. Peter’s Basilica was bathed in lamplight as the hour approached midnight.
Dressed in a stunning red cloak trimmed with black hands, she called on Pope Francis to acknowledge and respond to the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and spiritual people in Canada.
“If he starts saying that this is a problem in Canada, maybe people will actually start listening,” the Vancouver First Nations woman from Skatin and Sts’Ailes told Global News.
“In Canada, indigenous women are at the bottom and we are fighting. I’m fighting, trying to survive.”
Since arriving in Rome last week, Williams has been wearing her cape and wrapping herself in Canada’s Genocide Flag to take photos in front of sacred and historic sites.
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It is a powerful reminder of the strength, culture and identity that Canada’s colonial government, working with the Roman Catholic Church and others, sought to destroy. Pope Francis may not have seen the images, but William’s work in Italy has not gone unnoticed.
On Tuesday evening, Sts’ailes Chief Ralph Leon and Coun. Kelsey Charlie was in St. Peter’s Square as she snapped photos in front of one of the world’s holiest Catholic shrines. They were so proud and inspired that they spontaneously went to the ceremony and presented Williams with her “sacred legacy” – her first Indigenous ancestral name.
“It’s really organic, it’s not something we planned or anything,” Charlie said, holding a skin drum artwork done by William’s father. “We felt like it was a spirit-driven process for us.”
“We love you, you are a warrior,” Leon added, giving Williams a warm hug.
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They named it Palexelsiya, after the meeting point that once connected the upper and lower villages of the Sts’Ailes nation. It’s a place name with deep roots in her family and community, they explained, adorning her with a blanket and woven headband.
They began singing and drumming and enacted the Sts’Ailes Law on Roman soil. Tears of joy streamed down Palexelsiya’s face; Aside from having great personal significance for her, it was probably the first ceremony of its kind to be held next to the Catholic Church’s headquarters.
Palexelsiya said it was a night she would never forget and later posted on Instagram: “They tried to take away our culture, laws and language. We haven’t lost it, it’s still there. This is proof of that!”
Palexelsiya has been a passionate supporter of MMIWG2S for many years.
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Her aunt Belinda Williams went missing in 1978 and her cousin Tonya Holyk was a victim of Robert Pickton in 1996. In 2012, she founded Butterflies in Spirit, a Vancouver-based dance group raising awareness of violence against Indigenous women and girls during the MMIWG2S crisis.
Her work has taken her around the world, and she said it’s common for people in other countries to not know about Turtle Island’s indigenous peoples or the violence and discrimination they’ve endured for centuries.
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That’s why she started taking the MMIWG2S photos in Rome, she explained.
“It all started here, it started here. (Europe) is where all these people came from and killed our people,” Palexelsiya said. “I really hope something changes, so being here with the cape, with the genocide flag, is very powerful because people need to know the truth.”
Having a British Columbia representation in Rome is particularly important, she added, because the province is home to the infamous Highway of Tears. Dozens of Indigenous women and girls have disappeared or been killed on or near the 725-kilometer stretch of Highway 16 between Prince George and Prince Rupert since the 1950s.
On Friday, Pope Francis did not specifically address the MMWIG2S crisis in his historic apology for the role of some Catholic clergy in Canada’s distressing residential school system. He has not singled out the indigenous women in any way.
The apology, delivered in Vatican City at the end of meetings with an indigenous peoples delegation in Rome, should always be aimed specifically at boarding schools, but the head of the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) said she hoped MMIWG2S would be mentioned .
The crisis, explained grandmother white sea turtle Lorraine Whitman, is a symptom of boarding schools, intergenerational trauma and the colonial devaluation of indigenous life.
“In my opinion you have to include everything because we are like a tree of life and under that tree of life there are roots,” she said. “The missing and murdered tribal women and girls and two ghosts, we are intertwined.”
Several members of the indigenous delegation in Rome raised the MMIWG2S crisis before Pope Francis in private audiences throughout the week.
Wilton Littlechild, a truth and reconciliation commissioner and survivor, shared plans with Global News to ask the Pope to back the genocidal findings of the national investigation into MMIWG2S.
Adeline Webber, Yukon representative and long-time advocate for Indigenous women, said she included the crisis in her talks with the pope.
Also on Thursday, Fred Kelly, spiritual advisor to the First Nations delegation, spoke about MMIWG2S. In a press conference, he asked journalists, bishops and other delegates to observe a minute’s silence, not only for the victims and survivors of boarding schools, but also for Indigenous women and girls who have been “murdered” and “have been lost and are being harassed as we speak.” , being tortured by someone for sexual gratification.”
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Whitman said she appreciates the “good faith” actions of all of these delegates, but said NWAC should still have been given the opportunity to participate and provide representation specifically focused on Indigenous women’s priorities and concerns.
“Too often we never sit at the tables. Others decide for us.”
Webber, a boarding school survivor who was involved with NWAC for many years, agreed. Like the Assembly of First Nations, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and Métis National Council, NWAC is a federally recognized national indigenous organization.
“It’s sad that people aren’t inviting the Native Women’s Association of Canada,” Webber said during a rare quiet moment in her hotel conference room. “Women’s groups are always left out.”
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Whitman said seeing Palexelsiya’s photos in front of monuments and churches in Rome drove “a lot of emotions” into her heart because she knew Palexelsiya was dancing out her pain.
“She doesn’t let the murdered, missing tribal women, two ghosts and the diverse community out of the picture,” she told Global News.
“We know that without speaking, her voice is amplified and she educates the people of Rome.”
Palexelsiya was in Vatican City on Friday to hear the Pope’s apology and his acknowledgment of the great pain endured by the indigenous people. Like others in the expanded delegation that left Rome on Saturday, she said she looks forward to hearing Pope Francis say those words on Turtle Island.
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https://globalnews.ca/news/8730362/bc-woman-mmiwg2s-crisis-vatican/ ‘We fight’: BC woman brings MMIWG2S crisis to Vatican’s doorstep