A historic week of meetings with Indigenous leaders from across Canada culminated with Pope Francis expressing his “sorrow and shame” for the “deplorable” abuses at residential schools.
Survivors and their families had differing perspectives about the Pope’s statement, however. Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty believes his words shouldn’t be interpreted as an official apology, but rather a direct address to the small audience and those watching the livestream.
“I think the narrative perpetuated by the media was harmful because people didn’t understand the context in which it was delivered,” Gull-Masty told the Nation. “I don’t think he was intentionally omitting anybody. It was an important moment for the Catholic Church to see he’s sending this message to take part in this process, to reset the tone of the Church’s responsibility.”
Pope Francis was reportedly “deeply moved” by the delegates’ testimony, saying he hoped to visit Canada near the church’s Feast of St. Anne on July 26. Gull-Masty thinks he will likely visit the former residential school in Kamloops, the truth and reconciliation exhibit at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, and perhaps make stops in Inuit and Métis territories.
The Grand Chief believed his words to be genuine and a good starting point for further reconciliation efforts. She particularly appreciated the Pope’s following statement: “It’s chilling to think of determined efforts to instill a sense of inferiority, to rob people of their cultural identity, to sever their roots … unresolved traumas that have become intergenerational traumas.”
“I think that was the appropriate language,” said Gull-Masty. “I feel confident he will come and share another message. Will it ever be enough? I don’t know. I really don’t think you can share enough words to address what people endured in these schools. I think the work will go beyond one generation to heal from this. It will be a legacy that will never be forgotten.”
She described the trip as challenging and emotionally draining, demonstrating both the harsh realities of residential schools and the legacy of Indigenous resilience. The Pope was presented with baby moccasins representing those who never came home and asked to bring them with him to Canada.
Gull-Masty expressed concerns that the Church has failed to fulfill its settlement obligations for survivors and asking for complete disclosure. There were calls for expediting fundraising efforts for the $30 million Canadian bishops announced last September, bringing fugitive priests to justice and rescinding papal bulls that laid the foundations for colonial genocide 500 years ago.
During the visit, the delegation was shocked by the Vatican’s extensive collection of Indigenous artifacts in its Anima Mundi ethnological museum. Delegates requested that the Church return items belonging to Indigenous communities.
“This trip was kind of a weird experience,” Gull-Masty reflected. “It’s like going to the colonizer’s house and saying you’re responsible for all this stuff that went down and they’re not going to immediately change. I don’t think they’ll make an announcement the next day that they’re rescinding the papal bull.”
Legal experts also cautioned that the Pope’s apology won’t make Catholic entities or individuals more accountable in Canadian courts. As a head of state, the Pope has sovereign immunity when he speaks. Apology legislation in several provinces also makes expressions of regret inadmissible in legal proceedings.
“Legally it doesn’t have one scintilla of significance,” said Rob Talach, a lawyer who has sued Catholic entities over 400 times in the past 20 years. “When those words don’t lead to action, it’s just causing more trauma for people. These apologies don’t match the conduct of the church – they’ll still try to minimize compensation. This is an unrepentant organization.”
While it remains to be seen what reparations and reforms might result from this trip, Chisasibi Chief Daisy House hopes it leads to the release of residential school records. As community consultations continue, it’s likely that preliminary investigations of former school sites on Fort George Island will begin later this year with an aerial survey and ground-penetrating radar (GPR).
“It’s painful not to know but it will be painful to learn the truth as well,” House told the Nation. “The journals may fill in the gaps of what happened and direct the GPR process. Journals will help us in collective healing and can be kept at our cultural centre. We have some here and it captures a snapshot of the horrors.”
While some survivors have said they don’t want to excavate, radar techniques will reveal how realistic it is to clear-cut, considering the overgrowth, buried debris and uneven surfaces. A growing team, including Sarah Beaulieu, the consultant who was instrumental in Kamloops, is expected to manage this project over the next two years.
House was emotional watching the apology. With this exchange of compassionate words and gifts, including a Cree language bible from Gull-Masty and snowshoes delivered by Cree Youth Grand Chief Adrian Gunner, the Grand Chief hoped it was the beginning of a respectful relationship.
“The biggest part of this journey was not so much hearing from the Pope but to break that taboo of not talking about residential schools,” Gull-Masty asserted. “Intergenerational trauma has been secretly festering and it’s my role to create a safe space to talk about these things. Some were angered, some were pleased. All of those responses are completely appropriate.”
Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Nation