Hurts and healing: Papal visit stirs emotions of First Nation members in Alberta

·6 min read
Samson Cree Nation member Luci Johnson is raising her voice against the papal visit to Maskwacis, Alta. (Stephen Cook/CBC - image credit)
Samson Cree Nation member Luci Johnson is raising her voice against the papal visit to Maskwacis, Alta. (Stephen Cook/CBC - image credit)

WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.

Deep-seated hurt and pockets of hope.

These are among the complicated emotions rippling through an Indigenous community in central Alberta where Pope Francis is expected to deliver an apology for the Catholic Church's role in Canada's residential schools.

"For the amount of trauma … some of us maybe put deep down in ourselves and didn't want to deal with it and now it's all coming back out," said Luci Johnson, a member of the Samson Cree Nation who helps people navigate the court system around Maskwacis, Alta.

"And those are the things that no 'sorry' — [a] five-letter word — is ever going to make us heal."

Pope Francis will be in Canada from July 24 to 29.

On Monday, the first full day of his trip, the Pope will visit the former site of the Ermineskin Residential School in Maskwacis, about 100 kilometres south of Edmonton.

The community is the location of four First Nations: Ermineskin Cree Nation, Samson Cree Nation, Louis Bull Tribe and the Montana First Nation.

Opinions are mixed among nation members about the upcoming papal visit and expected apology. Some, like Johnson, are opposed. Others see it as an opportunity to begin healing.

Jason Franson/The Canadian Press
Jason Franson/The Canadian Press

Honourary Chief Wilton Littlechild of Ermineskin Cree Nation, the former Grand Chief of Treaty Six First Nations and a member of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said an apology is a chance to forgive.

A formal apology from the Pope was one of the TRC recommendations released in 2015.

"At least for those that have a desire, that want to forgive, will be given that opportunity and that to me is my one ongoing prayer for this visit," Littlechild said last month.

Johnson is a day school survivor; both of her parents, now deceased, were residential school survivors. She respects the chief's call for forgiveness but she wants accountability and not an apology that serves no real purpose other than to reopen old wounds.

In 25 years of working with the legal system around Maskwacis, Johnson has seen the intergenerational effects of residential schools in the cases that pass through the courthouse every day.

"It just can't be shoved under the corner and say sorry — somebody needs to be held responsible."

Paving the way

One aspect of the visit that has been the source of controversy is the decision to pave the road leading to Maskwa Park in Ermineskin Cree Nation, where the Pope will address an audience of Indigenous peoples on Monday.

The province has stated that the papal events in Maskwacis and Lac Ste. Anne, 100 kilometres west of Edmonton, will see high volumes of traffic. The upgrades were required to "prevent roadway failures and disruptions to buses transporting public or key officials to the sites."

Johnson noted that the reserve's roads are typically in poor condition and said doing upgrades specifically for the Pope's visit "leaves a bad taste in your mouth."

"These roads should be built," she said. "Alberta Transportation should come in, do this all the time."

Stephen Cook/CBC
Stephen Cook/CBC

Gilda Soosay, on the other hand, believes the paving and the apology will ultimately benefit the community.

The 51-year-old, who is the chair of Ermineskin's Our Lady of Seven Sorrows Catholic Church, said she's honoured that the Pope has chosen to visit Maskwacis.

"I'm hoping and I'm praying that it's a step forward to healing for our people, even — and I don't want to say anything to hurt those that are who are finding it difficult to forgive — but I also pray that they too have an open heart and try to forgive and begin the healing process."

Like Johnson, Soosay went to day school, where she experienced some of the abuse that was endemic to the residential schools. Her parents were former residential school students who are now deceased.

"I too will keep them in prayer when the Pope is here, hoping that they can see from above that they're not forgotten."

Soosay said her family joined others in talking about their experiences in 2008 when the TRC was launched.

She hopes the Pope's visit may help some survivors similarly open up. "To talk about their stories so that their healing can begin."

Reliving stories

Josh Littlechild, a nephew of Wilton Littlechild, said his own father has opened up more recently about his experiences. He is glad the apology is happening as it is an acknowledgement of the truth of residential schools.

"But the other feeling is this is a way to get off the hook real easy. I mean, there's still abusers alive among us. That's a good way to ensure that they don't face any prosecution."

Five years ago, conversations around colonialism and intergenerational trauma would have been relegated to academic circles, said Littlechild, who has a degree in Native Studies.

"I would have never thought Joe Blow down in Carstairs would know about this," he said.

"It's a nice change. But change causes grief — there's a lot of people … that are reliving those stories. "

He hopes the apology will help change Canadian attitudes toward Indigenous peoples, a shift he says is needed to fulfil the peace and intent of the treaties.

"My people have survived many horrendous acts for me just to even breathe," he said.

"And that makes me so happy. Because we're survivors, we're resilient people. And we're incredibly able to handle ourselves."

Strength and sadness

Stephen Cook/CBC
Stephen Cook/CBC

The Pope's visit has Johnson thinking about her parents, both of whom attended residential schools and both of whom carried their traumas in different ways.

Her mother strove to achieve, going to graduate school for education 40 years ago.

"That was her way of saying 'Residential school is not going to kill me,'" Johnson said.

She said her mother, Grace Marie Swampy, was not able to complete her PhD because academics rejected the premise of her work: the reality of residential schools.

Swampy now has an elementary school in Samson Cree Nation named after her, her smiling face adorning the pink school's entrance.

Her father, however, eventually succumbed to the abuses he suffered in the system, she said.

"I would love to have my father be part of [the apology], but we lost him to the addictions because of what happened to him in residential school.

"And that will never bring my father back."

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered 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.

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