'It was almost surreal': Three local Indigenous leaders reflect on Pope's apology

·5 min read
Indigenous people gather to see Pope Francis on his visit to Maskwacis, Alta., on Monday during his papal visit across Canada.  (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Indigenous people gather to see Pope Francis on his visit to Maskwacis, Alta., on Monday during his papal visit across Canada. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press - image credit)

WARNING: This story discusses residential schools.

In a much-anticipated speech Monday, surrounded by Indigenous people from across the country, Pope Francis delivered the words many have long waited for: "I am deeply sorry."

The speech was part of the Pope's six-day visit to Canada, which the Roman Catholic leader called "a penitential pilgrimage."

In the calls to action released by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) in 2015, the Pope was asked to issue an apology to survivors, families and communities for the church's role in the abuse of Indigenous children in Catholic-run residential schools.

It also asked for the apology to happen in Canada.

"I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples," Francis said in his address, speaking from the site of the former Ermineskin Indian Residential School in Maskwacis, Alta., one of the largest in Canada.

The Pope remains in Alberta until Wednesday morning to hold a mass and continue meeting with survivors.

WATCH | Pope Francis apologizes for forced assimilation of Indigenous children at residential schools:

Some felt the apology fell short of its intended purpose, in part, because the Pope apologized for individual Catholics rather than the Roman Catholic Church. Others felt the apology was sincere, but they want more action.

CBC News asked three local Indigenous leaders who attended Monday's apology to tell us what they thought about the Pope's statement, and what's next.

Jenny Goodin

Jenny Goodin is a Siksika Nation councillor, and she travelled to Maskwacis as a proxy for Chief Ouray Crowfoot, she said.

She has heard a variety of responses from those who listened to the Pope's words.

"Some people are ecstatic," Goodin said.

"You go from one extreme to the other, the others whose negative emotions are really awakened. It's a reminder. And as far as I'm concerned, nobody will ever forget what happened."

CBC
CBC

Personally, Goodin felt the apology was powerful, saying it's a public acknowledgement by the Catholic Church of the wrongs, pain and suffering inflicted on Indigenous communities.

"We lost the opportunity of our cultural education. Things that should have been passed down from generation to generation were interrupted," she said.

"But we're still here and we still have our culture. We still have our language."

As for whether she's ready to accept the apology, she says personally she thinks so.

"There were wrongs done to my grandmother, my mother and my family," she said.

"You can move forward if you hang on. My grandmother always said that."

Rev. Tony Snow

Rev. Tony Snow saw Monday's apology through many lenses.

He's an Indigenous minister for the Chinook Winds Region of the United Church. He's also a Stoney Nakoda First Nation member, a day school survivor and the son of a residential school survivor. He's also part of the ministry team at Hillhurst United Church in Calgary.

"I think it did reach the monumental inference that was needed," he said in a Calgary Eyeopener interview.

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press
Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Snow's father went to the Morley Indian Residential School, which was run by the Methodist Church, and later, the United Church of Canada.

The United Church has since issued an apology for its role in the residential school system and began working with the TRC.

His father, later an ordained minister in the United Church of Canada in Alberta, also helped to try to bring communities together to find a way to move forward.

"We work through the issues and perspectives that need to come forward, especially around truth-telling and around the ability for us to get on the same page, to remember that we are both working toward a better future," he said.

"I think that this is what will need to happen in the Catholic Church as well."

The apology from the Pope is the first step in that process, Snow said.

And as an Indigenous minister himself, he hopes the apology will allow more denominations to work together toward reconciliation.

"That institutional change can happen with the input and advice of Indigenous elders, Indigenous clergy and others that are there and working with the church to try to be a support."

Michelle Scott

For Michelle Scott, the reception itself in Maskwacis is what stood out most Monday.

It included a grand entry and songs, area chiefs in regalia and headdresses — a true Indigenous ceremony, she said.

"It really was a beautiful and moving ceremony even before the Pope spoke, just in terms of what it means to forgive, what it means to host," she said.

"This is what reconciliation can look like when you are a good relative and when you treat people with respect and humility and grace."

Brad Joanisse
Brad Joanisse

Scott travelled to Maskwacis with 13 delegates from St. Mary's University in Calgary. She's the director of Indigenous initiatives there, and she wanted to ensure elders and knowledge keepers living in urban communities were included in the event.

She's also part of the Mi'kmaq Nation with roots from the Pauls in Newfoundland.

"Colonization has had an impact on the cultural, I'm going to say cultural genocide of the Mi'kmaq Nation of Newfoundland … the Catholic Church playing a part," she said.

"We're currently in a revitalization."

When the speech itself began, Scott said the Pope sounded heartfelt, and when the apology arrived, it was clear it had an impact.

"As soon as the interpreter spoke the words, 'I'm sorry,' the crowd just burst into applause," she said.

"It felt genuine and authentic.… It was almost surreal."

Scott says she hopes the Pope's words will lead to more institutional change. In her own work, that could mean bringing more Indigenous learnings and cultural knowledge into the educational system.

For now, there's a lot to process, but Scott is hopeful action will come next.

"The gravity of it when you're in the moment is sometimes hard to even hold, you know?"

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.

Mental health counselling and crisis support is also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat at www.hopeforwellness.ca.

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