'I felt in my heart, the Pope really means it'; Sask. residential school survivors react to papal apology

·4 min read
Pope Francis is shown with Indigenous chiefs at the Ermineskin Cree Nation Cemetery in Maskwacis, Alta., before he offered an apology on Monday for the Roman Catholic Church's involvement in residential schools. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Pope Francis is shown with Indigenous chiefs at the Ermineskin Cree Nation Cemetery in Maskwacis, Alta., before he offered an apology on Monday for the Roman Catholic Church's involvement in residential schools. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Residential school survivors from Saskatchewan who travelled to Maskwacis, Alta., say they were moved to hear Pope Francis apologize for the part the Roman Catholic Church played in the forced assimilation of Indigenous children at residential schools in Canada.

Pope Francis, battling mobility issues, was pushed in a wheelchair to the Ermineskine Cree Nation Cemetery on Monday morning, listening to the drum and song of Jerry Saddleback.

He paused in the cemetery for a silent prayer before he was moved to the powwow arbour in Maskwacis, where he was greeted by a large crowd of people from across the country who gathered in the community south of Edmonton, Alta.

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation's red banner, depicting the names of those who have been identified as dying in residential schools, was brought into the centre of the powwow arbour and displayed in front of the Pope.

He offered his apology, saying he was "deeply sorry" for the many Catholics and other Christians who supported the colonization mentality of the governments responsible for oppression of Indigneous people.

"I ask forgiveness, in particular, for the ways in which many members of the church and of religious communities co-operated, not least through their indifference, in projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation promoted by the governments of that time, which culminated in the system of residential schools," Francis said.

The final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission stated Christian missionaries laid the foundation of Canada's residential system by founding the earliest residential schools in Canada.

Between 1883 and 1969 the churches and the federal government jointly operated the institutions.

For survivors from Saskatchewan who travelled to Alberta, the Pope's closest stop, Monday was a day of emotion and reflection.

Maureen Bellanger travelled to Maskwacis from Île-à-la-Crosse, Sask. to hear the Pope speak. After he offered his apology she said she was still digesting what had happened.

"For the leader of the Catholic organization to come here and ask us for an apology and to forgive him, it was absolutely beautiful," she said. "While he was apologizing you can't help but think of all the spirits who are at unrest."

She noted the boarding school in Île-à-la-Crosse was a provincially run institution as opposed to a federally run one — as many other residential schools were — and as a result she and other survivors from the village were still waiting to tell their stories and start their healing journey.

Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters
Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters

Bellanger says she started questioning her beliefs when the discovery of possible unmarked graves was announced at Kamloops, B.C., last summer, so the Pope's apology was emotional for her.

Yvonne Longworth, also from Île-à-la-Crosse, says she had tears in her eyes throughout the Pope's statement.

"Today, I felt in my heart, the Pope really means it," Longworth said.

"I just want to know, where is our records? I've been looking for our records, where they took us, what happened? There's a lot of stories in Ile-a-la-Crosse … It was painful, but I'm happy now that at least [the Pope] is opening the door and I felt it in my heart."

The Roman Catholic Church previously promised it would release records in its possession related to the residential school system in Canada.

The Île-à-la-Crosse boarding school was operated by the provincial government and the Roman Catholic Church, though at times it was also operating with federal money, too.

Last summer Cowessess First Nation, home of the former Marieval Residential School, discovered unmarked graves.

Delorme says the apology will likely bring about mixed emotions in Cowesses.

"Some are welcoming [the Pope's] apology. Some want justice. Some want nuns and priests to go to court because of what they [Indigenous youth] had to go through, what they had to witness," he said on Monday.  "Some are not even going to participate. They have found peace within their hearts."

Now that Pope Francis has apologized, Delorme says, people must be willing to stand with and support survivors.

Amber Bracken/Reuters
Amber Bracken/Reuters

The Saskatchewan's government said the Pope's remarks were an important step toward healing and reconciliation for survivors in the province.

The province's statement acknowledged the work Indigenous leaders were doing in Saskatchewan concerning residential schools and particularly researching undocumented deaths and burials at residential schools.

"We will continue to offer our unwavering support as we work together to help bring closure to survivors, families and communities in our province," the statement says.

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

Support is also available for anyone affected by their experience at Indian or federal day schools. Individuals can access immediate mental health counselling and crisis intervention services at the Hope for Wellness helpline by calling 1-855-242-3310 or online at www.hopeforwellness.ca.

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