Focus on people, not pope, during papal visit, say residential school survivors

·4 min read

As she prepares to travel west and be present when the Pope visits Canada, Geraldine Shingoose has mixed emotions about the fact she will soon be in the presence of the leader of an institution that caused so much harm and suffering to her and to generations of Indigenous people and communities.

“What was done to us was horrific,” Shingoose said. “They withheld basic human rights and violated so many of us.

“We were violated on so many levels, and we were just children.”

Shingoose, who spent nine years in a residential school as a child and who experienced abuse and mistreatment in that school, will travel to Edmonton later this week to take part in events planned as part of the Papal visit to Canada, which will see the Pontiff travel to Edmonton, Quebec City and Iqaluit from July 24 to 29.

During the visit, the Pope is expected to expand on an apology he made earlier this year when he apologized for what he said were “deplorable actions” of some within the Catholic Church who were involved in Canada’s residential school system.

Between the late 1800s and the 1970s in Canada, more than 150,000 Indigenous children were taken from their home communities and families and forced to attend residential schools that were often run by members of the Catholic Church and it is now well known that abuse and mistreatment of Indigenous children in residential schools were common.

The schools also attempted to force children to assimilate into western culture, as children were largely not allowed to practice their own traditions or speak their languages while in residential schools.

And when she was in residential school, Shingoose said she never could have imagined that one day she would stand with the leader and the symbol of an institution that harmed her and so many others.

“I never could have thought when I was in a residential school as a child that I would one day be in the presence of an entity that had so much control over so many of us when we were just little kids,” Shingoose said.

But Shingoose, who has been a longtime advocate for residential school survivors and has been publicly telling the story of her own childhood for years, said she believes it is important that she be there because she wants to represent and be a voice for all survivors.

“I’m going there, because I need to be there as a residential school survivor, but also I’m going to be there to represent all those survivors that haven’t been able to tell their stories,” she said.

And with the ongoing discovery of what is believed to be unmarked graves near former residential schools across Canada over the last year-and-a-half, Shingoose said she will also represent children who died in residential schools and who never made it back home to their families.

“I am going to be there and stand there for all the children, and stand there for those children who didn’t get to come home,” she said. “I will be there for them.”

Fellow residential school survivor Viv Ketchum, who is a close friend of Shingoose, said she would not be travelling to take part in the Pope’s visit, but does hope that while the Pontiff is here that there is less focus on him and the church, and more focus on survivors, families, and those who never made it home from residential schools.

“There needs to be focus on the survivors and not on the Pope himself because we are the ones that were left with all that harm and trauma,” Ketchum said. “We are the ones that have been forced to live with this every day of our lives, so this is our story and our truth.”

And while the Pope will come and go, Ketchum said she also hopes that his visit is another opportunity for more Canadians to learn about the true horrors of what happened to children in residential schools, and how that abuse and mistreatment continues to affect generations of Indigenous people and communities.

“We need to think when he is here of the children and the survivors,” Ketchum said. “But we also really need to reflect on Canada’s history, and what throughout that history was done to so many poor little children.”

— Dave Baxter is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Winnipeg Sun. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.

Dave Baxter, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Sun

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