Innu Mount Cashel survivor calls for apology to Indigenous people during Pope's visit to Canada

·4 min read
Penote Antuan, sitting here in his church on Sheshatshiu Innu First Nation, says he wants to see the Pope apologize for harms done by Catholic people. (Heidi Atter/CBC - image credit)
Penote Antuan, sitting here in his church on Sheshatshiu Innu First Nation, says he wants to see the Pope apologize for harms done by Catholic people. (Heidi Atter/CBC - image credit)

When Pope Francis conducts a holy mass at the National Shrine of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré on Thursday, an Innu man hopes he'll do more than lead the congregation.

Penote Antuan says he wants to see the Pope apologize for the harm Catholics have done to Indigenous people.

The Pope apologized to Indigenous delegations in Rome earlier this spring for the role of the Catholic Church in Canada's residential school system, but Antuan, a Mount Cashel Orphanage survivor, says a larger apology is needed to heal.

"I'm hoping to hear Pope Francis, to hear him say that we're sorry. What happened to all people who are Indigenous, people who live in Canada or elsewhere," he said.

"And that will give us a help, at least a help to move away from the burden that we already have."

Antuan was sent from Sheshatshiu Innu First Nation to Mount Cashel Orphanage in St. John's in 1958 when he was nine. He said he was told it would be for a better education, but that's not what happened.

"You couldn't imagine how we were treated because we were Innu people," he said.

"I'm 73 now.… My scars are still there. Still there."

Heidi Atter/CBC
Heidi Atter/CBC

Mount Cashel is now infamous for a sexual abuse scandal and coverup. A 2019 court case found the Roman Catholic Episcopal Corporation of St. John's vicariously liable for sexual abuse at the orphanage in the 1940s, '50s and '60s.

Antuan said he still cannot talk about what he experienced at the orphanage. He said he hasn't told his parents or seven children about his experience.

'I never let go of my faith' 

Antuan said his faith has helped him through it all. He said his faith helped him through suicidal ideation as a young man and he's deeply connected to the Catholic church today.

"I've never let go of my faith…. Even though, I mean, I've had a heavy burden sometimes," he said.

"When I got older, I got more beliefs in my religion. It's helped me a lot."

Heidi Atter/CBC
Heidi Atter/CBC

Antuan is one of hundreds going to the Feast of Saint Anne outside Quebec City. He said he was one of the people to suggest Labrador Innu join Quebec Innu for the annual pilgrimage. The feast is held each year on July 26 in honour of Saint Anne, believed to be the grandmother of Jesus in Christian and Islamic tradition.

He drove the bus from Sheshatshiu Innu First Nation to the train in Esker, near Churchill Falls, as a young man to transport elders for the pilgrimage. That first year in the 1980s, there were 36 people and it's only grown, he said.

"I feel proud of my people that want to go to Saint Anne's so that they can pray, so that they can meditate with the Feast of Saint Anne's," Antuan said.

Heidi Atter/CBC
Heidi Atter/CBC

Father Joe Pichai at the Tshitshitua Shshep (St. Joseph's) Church in Sheshatshiu said up to 1,000 Labrador Innu are travelling. He said he knows of 98 vehicles and a chartered flight from the First Nation to Quebec City. Pichai said it's an important religious experience.

"People, elders, they have shared that when they travel up there, they even experience miracles in Sainte-Anne," he said.

"They have collected some waters and they are used for when they were ailments."

Hundreds are also travelling from Mushuau Innu First Nation in Natuashish.

Chief John Nui said organizers have been working behind the scenes for at least a month and people are looking forward to the first pilgrimage since before the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I think a lot of people were very anxious to go there," Nui said.

"The Pope's visit, you know, it's putting a lot more excitement on there. And there's a lot of people going out with other elders, along with the children."

He said the Feast of Saint Anne is a time for people to pray for loved ones to get better from illness and injury.

Nui said while there may be a range of reactions to seeing the Pope, it's something many people from Natuashish are interested in.

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