Marching on foot to Plains of Abraham, Indigenous delegations want focus on survivors

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Thérèse Thelesh Bégin is hugged by her grandson Jay Launière-Mathias as they arrive from Mashteuiatsh to the Plains of Abraham in Quebec City. (Camille Carpentier/Radio-Canada - image credit)
Thérèse Thelesh Bégin is hugged by her grandson Jay Launière-Mathias as they arrive from Mashteuiatsh to the Plains of Abraham in Quebec City. (Camille Carpentier/Radio-Canada - image credit)

Shorlty after completing a seven-day, 275-kilometre journey on foot to the Plains of Abraham in Quebec City, Jay Launière-Mathias closed his eyes and hugged and kissed his grandmother.

"She's a daily source of inspiration," said Launière-Mathias when describing Thérèse Thelesh Bégin, a residential school survivor.

The healing march, which began last Thursday, was meant to show solidarity with residential school survivors and bring several generations of Indigenous people together.

The group who took part in the march included about a dozen people who are survivors themselves and are members of the Innu, Anishinaabe, Naskapi, Wendat and Atikamekw communities. They began the journey in the Innu community of Mashteuiatsh in the Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean region.

The community of Mashteuiatsh is home to the last residential school in Quebec, Pointe-Bleue, which closed in 1991.

Launière-Mathias, the executive director of the non-profit group Puamun Meshkenu, said the seven-day adventure cultivated a sense of "collective pride."

Camille Carpentier/Radio-Canada
Camille Carpentier/Radio-Canada

"It was teamwork. Each person travelled the kilometres that they could. When they weren't walking, they were supporting each other emotionally and spiritually," he said. "It was a reflection of our communities, our nations."

Several other Indigenous delegations are expected to be in Quebec City — but many are also staying home. Some groups, like the Cree Nation of Chisasibi in Eeyou Istchee, Que., opted to skip the papal visit and focus on healing and traditional activities. Both Catholic and Anglican priests ran schools on the Cree territory for decades. The last school in the area closed in 1981.

About 140,000 people are expected to gather at the Plains of Abraham to watch the Pope's address on Wednesday evening.

On Monday, during Francis's stop at the powwow grounds in Maskwacis, south of Edmonton — the first on his "pilgrimage of penance" trip to Canada — he expressed deep sorrow for harms suffered at residential schools and asked forgiveness for church members' co-operation with government policies of assimilation.

The apology stopped short of acknowledging the church's role as an institution.

Bégin, a survivor of residential schools, said she often thinks about the fact she could have been one of the children who never came back. She says the Pope's apology in Alberta fell short.

"I know it's a big deal to make an apology, but I think there was a little something missing," Bégin said. "Maybe today we will hear what's missing."

When asked what she would like to hear, she opted to keep those thoughts private.

The Pope's visit is expected to trigger a wide range of emotions among many of the people in attendance.

Donna Larivière, the daughter of a residential school survivor, is one of 28 Indigenous volunteers on site to provide psychological support.

"Different survivors have different stories so there's some that can be really intense.... We're there for them at any level of trauma," Larivière said.

"We're especially here to give them love, just a hug if they just need that."

The Pope will remain in Quebec City until Friday. The last stop of his weeklong trip to Canada is in Iqaluit.

Émilie Warren/CBC
Émilie Warren/CBC

Large ovation in Wendake

On Tuesday evening, the group that marched for seven days from Mashteuiatsh arrived at the Huron-Wendat First Nation in Wendake, just outside the provincial capital, and was greeted by a loud ovation from a large crowd of people wearing orange shirts.

One of the men who marched was carrying a canoe on his back as he arrived in Wendake. The canoe was a symbol of the spirit of this ancestors that was he carrying with him.

According to Mia Tenasco, who was there to greet her cousin and others who marched, the focus of the papal visit must remain primarily on survivors.

Émilie Warren/CBC
Émilie Warren/CBC

"I hope that the attention is put on the stories of the survivors and not the presence of the priest, because that is where it counts the most, is them being able to tell their stories, them being able to share their truths," said Tenasco, who is from the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation near Maniwaki, Que.

Cheryl Tenasco, Mia's mother, said the Pope's apology needs to be followed by concrete actions.

"How are they going to help restore our culture and language and also to allow us to practise our own cultural ways within the spirituality?'' she said.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for residential school survivors and others affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

Support is also available for anyone affected by their experience at Indian or federal day schools. Individuals can access immediate mental health counselling and crisis intervention services at the Hope for Wellness helpline by calling 1-855-242-3310 or online at www.hopeforwellness.ca.

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