Anger and hope for healing in Kahnawake as Pope's Quebec visit approaches

·4 min read
Anger and hope for healing in Kahnawake as Pope's Quebec visit approaches

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

Deacon Ron Boyer knows Pope Francis's visit to Canada is bringing up difficult emotions for residential school survivors like him, but he hopes they can find a way to open their hearts to what he has to say.

"What he carries, I call it good medicine. I think that's going to reflect onto other people that will listen to him," Boyer said on Friday. "Healing is a two way street."

The deacon at the Saint Francis Xavier Mission is part of the Kahnawake delegation that's heading to Quebec City, where the Pope is expected to ask forgiveness from those who attended residential schools in Quebec and the Maritimes.

The Catholic Church ran over half of the residential schools in Canada, which included four Catholic-run institutions in Quebec. Cases of both abuse and deaths are linked to residential schools in the province.

The Pope made his first official apology in Canada on Monday afternoon at the site of the former Ermineskin Indian Residential School in Maskwacis, Alta., where thousands of survivors and their families gathered in attendance.

"I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples," Francis said.

He stopped short of implicating the institution of the Catholic Church in the abuse, however.

Boyer says it was his experience in residential school over the 1940s and 1950s that led him to his life in the church.

He attended the St. Charles Garnier Indian Residential School in Spanish, Ont., which neighboured a school for girls. At both institutions, children from Quebec and Ontario were called by their assigned number — not their names.

Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre, Algoma University
Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre, Algoma University

From a young age, he felt an obligation to stand up for the younger ones, including his brothers, who faced frequent beatings in residential school.

"I had a lot of difficulty and was punished a lot of times. I always stood up for the underdog," Boyer said, adding that sense of responsibility carried into adulthood — and inspired him to become a leader in the church.

While an apology from the church was a long time coming, he says it's never too late.

'Never forgive and never forget'

Josie Martin McGregor is another survivor in Kahnawake, the Kanien'kehá:ka community on the South Shore of Montreal, who attended an institution in Spanish. She wasn't planning on listening to the Pope's message at first, but tuned in on Monday after her friends called.

Dave St-Amant/CBC
Dave St-Amant/CBC

She spent over 11 years in residential school, and still feels the pain of losing touch with her family.

"He didn't shy away," she said of the Pope's words. "It's not his fault, he's just carrying what the others left with him."

But she still harbours a lot of anger toward the church for its role in taking away her childhood.

"I will never forgive and never forget."

Dave St-Amant/CBC
Dave St-Amant/CBC

Joe Deom says he wants the church to pressure federal and provincial governments to take action to address the systemic and structural racism Indigenous people continue to face.

"For the Pope to make an apology, it's a good thing. Because the survivors of these residential schools need that," said Deom, a Bear clan elder in the Kahnawake longhouse. His parents are residential school survivors.

"But for us here, here in Kahnawake as a whole, that's not quite enough."

He said something concrete that the Pope could do is renounce the Doctrine of Discovery, centuries-old Papal Bulls which set the foundation for the colonization of the Americas.

WATCH Suvivors share how residential school still leaves a mark decades later:

During his apology Monday, Pope Francis said the Church will be conducting a "serious investigation into the facts of what took place in the past." He also made a commitment to support those healing from "the traumas they suffered," without naming concrete actions to come.

"There's a bigger picture here that I don't want anybody to miss. The dispossession of our lands, stripping our people of our culture, our identity and our ways of life, ultimately that is the biggest act of crime that was committed on Turtle Island," said Melissa Montour-Lazare, whose parents attended residential schools.

"A lot of people here really don't care about an apology, because no apology is going to make what they did here better."

Dave St-Amant/CBC
Dave St-Amant/CBC

Regardless of what comes next from the church, Indigenous-led efforts at healing are already underway — and more effective — for survivors like McGregor.

"Genocide. That's what I call it. They tried to get rid of us but they couldn't," she said. "I'm Mohawk and I'm alive, and I'm here to stay."

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.

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

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