'What happens the day after?'; Sask. survivors, church look ahead after Pope apologizes

·4 min read
Pope Francis offered his apology to residential school survivors on Canadian soil on Monday, but survivors and their advocates are waiting to see what actions the Roman Catholic Church will take. (Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters - image credit)
Pope Francis offered his apology to residential school survivors on Canadian soil on Monday, but survivors and their advocates are waiting to see what actions the Roman Catholic Church will take. (Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters - image credit)

Terri Roberts and her sister were forcefully taken to a residential school 56 years ago, but on Monday she felt like she was six again.

She says she distinctly remembers the tears streaming down her face as she longed for the love and affection of her parents and family — something even the nicest of teachers at the residential school she was taken to couldn't or wouldn't offer.

Roberts and her husband, Tom, travelled to Alberta from La Ronge to hear the head of the Roman Catholic Church apologize for the actions taken by church members who supported the assimilation of Indigenous people that ultimately led to the creation of residential schools.

"It was quite emotional for me because, after 56 years, seeing Pope Francis … doing the apology, I couldn't help with the tears, surrounded by people of all nationalities [and] non-native people," Roberts said on Tuesday.

"I'm a very caring person and tears always seem to put me back in my spot. And … those tears, it brought me back to when I was a little girl, when I had just turned six when I was in the [school]."

She says she was able to put aside her emotions temporarily to help others who needed some comforting during the event.

Terri says the Pope's apology brought a sense of closure and left her feeling as though years of personal baggage had been lifted from her soul.

Going forward tomorrow the question will be: What follows the apology? What happens the day after? And I think that's a beautiful question.  - Archbishop Don Bolen, Archdiocese of Regina

Tom, a residential school survivor and support worker for other survivors, says he had been waiting to hear that apology for a long, long time.

"It took them so long for them to realize what my people went through for over 100 years," the former CBC personality said through tears. "It shouldn't have happened."

The couple travelled to the James Smith Cree Nation earlier this year, where the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, a leader of the Anglican Church, offered his apology to residential school survivors.

Submitted by Terri Roberts
Submitted by Terri Roberts

Both said they felt the Pope's visit to Alberta was a bit less personal than the archbishop's visit in Saskatchewan had been.

They were able to speak directly with the archbishop — Tom said he was even able to hug the prelate — while the Pope was seated well away from the crowd and surrounded by security.

However, Tom says, he felt their apologies were very similar.

Even though they didn't get a chance to speak directly with Pope Francis, the couple felt the overall message of the day got through to the Holy See (the government of the Roman Catholic Church, which is led by the Pope as the bishop of Rome) — and his message to those who came to hear him was sincere.

"A couple of times, [the Pope] had to wipe the tears from his eyes as he was talking," Tom said.

"To me, that meant something. It touched the hearts of many people. And, yes, it angered a lot of people, too. For a while there, I wasn't feeling well, because why did it take so long?"

The Roberts both called for concrete actions from thec hurch to advance reconciliation and truly show the organization is sorry for its actions.

In his speech on Monday, Pope Francis said the church would be investigating the residential school system.

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

Though it wasn't immediately clear what that would look like or its timeline, Tom says he was happy to hear the church wanted to take that step.

Charlene Lavallee, the president of Métis, Non and Status Indians Saskatchewan — the Saskatchewan chapter of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples — took a busload of survivors and their family members to Alberta.

She says an investigation conducted by the church would be a good place to start because what happened in the institutions needs to be known and made public to help survivors and their families move on.

Lavallee says she and the survivors who attended the Pope's apology spent time thinking about what the next steps should be.

"Some of the things [the survivors] were talking about was counselling, wellness — you know, helping the people get better because [these impacts] are generational," Lavallee said.

Archbishop Don Bolen of the Regina Roman Catholic Archdiocese also travelled to Alberta to hear the Pope speak.

Bryan Eneas/CBC
Bryan Eneas/CBC

Like the Roberts, Bolen was moved by the Pope's apology and by the response from survivors who attended the gathering.

He says  Monday's apology was a day many survivors, Indigenous people and religious people had worked hard together to achieve.

The Pope's address was emotional, heartfelt and passionate, Bolen says, and it strongly condemned the residential school system.

However, he too was curious what the next steps would be.

"The Pope didn't say everything that everyone wanted him to say, but we're at a new place today," Bolen said.

"Going forward tomorrow the question will be: What follows the apology? What happens the day after? And I think that's a beautiful question."

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