Intergenerational residential school survivors in Saskatchewan want more after papal apology

Intergenerational residential school survivors say the Pope's apology, made Monday, doesn't go far enough and the church needs to take meaningful steps toward helping Indigenous people heal from the lasting damage of the residential school system (Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters - image credit)
Intergenerational residential school survivors say the Pope's apology, made Monday, doesn't go far enough and the church needs to take meaningful steps toward helping Indigenous people heal from the lasting damage of the residential school system (Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters - image credit)

While survivors are at the forefront of the papal visit to Canada, intergenerational survivors and Indigenous youth have their thoughts on the apology he offered earlier this week, too.

Many survivors spoke about the intergenerational impact of residential schools during the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury's visit earlier this year.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission's findings also showed the schools left effects even among those who never crossed their thresholds.

Destiny Thomas, 29, from Pelican Lake First Nation in north-central Saskatchewan, says the grandparents who raised her and her aunts and uncles were taken to residential schools or day schools.

"Watching [the pope's apology] when it went down, it was very emotional, it had me crying, because these are all of our grandmothers, our grandfathers that were there," she said.

"Some of them may have needed that apology but I know others — it was almost like opening up that trauma all over again, and it's hard for our people to see that. It's hard for me as a young woman seeing that."

For Thomas, any apology, even from Pope Francis, amounts to "just words," and though they might have resonated with some survivors and Indigenous people across Canada, those words need to come with concrete and meaningful actions.

As a first step, Thomas said, the cycles of emotional, physical, mental and spiritual abuse caused by residential schools need to be addressed in ways that work for each community's specific needs.

"A lot of the addictions that our people go through is because of these residential schools, these churches. It's basically where all of this stems from," she said. "It all comes down to the effects our people [felt] from those churches."

She believes services need to be offered on every reserve and in every urban area to do the work needed to undo the damage caused by residential schools.

Many reserves, she said, don't have the resources or means to get the help they need to heal and move forward.

As an intergenerational survivor of residential schools, Thomas said she is working to restore the connection she lost with her language. Her grandparents raised her in the Cree language, so she can understand it, but not speak it.

"I'm still learning my language," she said. "I have a degree in the Cree language literacy … I'm still going for my masters as well in Indigenous language education."

For Krysta Alexson, who lives in Prince Albert but has ties to Kahkewistahaw First Nation in southern Saskatchewan, the Pope's apology also meant "absolutely nothing."

While it was good Pope Francis travelled to Maskwacis, Alta. and other places in Canada, Alexson said, the process was institutionalized and wasn't inclusive. The Pope did not specifically apologize for the system that tore families apart, nor did he apologize for the sexual abuses that occurred in those institutions, she said.

In her opinion, "there was not a single wording that was full remorse for anything that happened."

Submitted by Krysta Alesson
Submitted by Krysta Alesson

"Of course, it can be harmful to really list out the details of what happened, but if you're not willing to use those words yourself and stand next to your apology for a specific situation, you just check the box."

According to the Vatican, the Pope apologized for those actions when Indigenous delegations from Canada travelled to Rome.

Alexson said she also didn't accept the apology because the church still owes residential school survivors millions of dollars it said it planned to raise to help them improve their lives — yet the Pope took government money to make the trip happen.

For an apology to be meaningful, she said, the church needs to return any land it owns to Indigenous people, and Indigenous people need to be properly compensated for their sufferings, as the church promised they would be.

Alexson said her family members attended the Marieval Residential School and the Lebret residential schools in Saskatchewan.

Her father, who moved to Prince Albert after spending time at a residential school, has had an emotional week and was feeling "very beaten down" and "very upset" by the papal visit.

"A lot of money was given out for survivors to attend [the Pope's visit], but we never heard about it," Alexson said.

"Not all survivors were offered a chance to go. There wasn't that equality, there wasn't that inclusion," she said, adding her father didn't want to go because he cared what the Pope had to say — he wanted to go to leave his anger there.

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

However, others felt the papal apology brought hope.

Hailey Rose, born and raised in North Battleford and with family ties to Grizzly Bear Head Lean Man Mosquito and Red Pheasant First Nations, said the Pope's apology brought hope.

"I do want to acknowledge that I understand why some survivors of residential schools may have needed this apology. On the other hand, I understand those that didn't need one," the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations Youth representative wrote in a brief statement.

"I hope that this apology gave some closure to our people and we can start moving in the right direction."

She said First Nations people always take care of one another — something that might be particularly difficult now — and she is asking people stay connected and not lose sight of their goals.

Rose said she wanted to see investments in First Nations youth to "help break barriers and intergenerational trauma within our families" in the wake of the Pope's apology.

She believes the creation of culture camps, language revitalization initiatives and cultural healing opportunities for youth need to be made to move toward meaningful reconciliation.

"I always believed that if you make a decision and it benefits the children, then move forward with it," Rose wrote. "I have faith in my relatives that they will make the right choices for our people."