Sask. Indigenous groups hope Pope's visit prompts settlement of long-standing grievances

·7 min read
Indigenous leaders and residential school survivors in Saskatchewan have some common hopes and expectations for the visit of Pope Francis to Canada. (Andrew Medichini/The Associated Press - image credit)
Indigenous leaders and residential school survivors in Saskatchewan have some common hopes and expectations for the visit of Pope Francis to Canada. (Andrew Medichini/The Associated Press - image credit)

Warning: This story contains distressing details

Some Indigenous organizations in Saskatchewan say they hope the Pope's visit to Canada results in the settling of some long-standing wrongs and injustices.

Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations Chief Bobby Cameron said he is thankful to Pope Francis for his visit to Canada this week and for his expected apology, but that there are action items that the federation expects to be addressed. The FSIN represents Saskatchewan's First Nations.

Cameron said the Roman Catholic Church's Doctrine of Discovery needs to be totally eliminated and dissolved. It dates back to the 15th century, when papal edicts empowered Christian colonial expansion and said any land "discovered" by colonial powers could be claimed as their own.

The doctrine also stated Indigenous people who inhabited those lands were not Christian and could be subjugated and converted to Christianity.

Cameron said the FSIN also expects First Nations artifacts and residential school records to be immediately returned to First Nations and the survivors.

He said there is also an expectation that "true compensation happens," saying there are still thousands of residential school survivors who were not compensated properly.

"We would ask the Pope that he would support us in calling for a complete reopening of this whole residential school case," he said.

The federation also expects that all the individuals — including priests and nuns — who inflicted abuse, harm and death on First Nations children be brought to justice somehow, said Cameron.

"They may think they have gotten away with it here on Earth, but they're going to answer to God," he said. "When you commit murder, you're going to answer to God sooner or later."

Cameron said these would be meaningful action items after the Pope's visit, adding reconciliation doesn't mean anything without action.

Île-à-la-Crosse residential school survivors still waiting

Michelle LeClair, the vice-president of the Métis Nation-Saskatchewan, said an apology the Pope made earlier this year in Rome was a start.

LeClair said it will make a bigger difference for some people when he apologizes on Canadian soil, but that it also needs to go further.

"When he apologized, he apologized for the actions of others," she said. "But it's my personal view that he should apologize for the actions of the Church."

LeClair is hopeful the Pope's visit also leads to a resolution for survivors of the Île-à-la-Crosse residential school, which existed in one form or another from the late 1800s to the mid-1970s. She said they have not received the acknowledgement or compensation other survivors have and that there are only about 650 of them still alive.

"It's a shame because through COVID and all of this, we lost so many survivors that were passionate about having that acknowledgement, having their stories heard," she said.

LeClair said the Roman Catholic Church, the federal government and the provincial government were all involved in running the school at some point. Ottawa said the school was never federally operated or administered.

Survivors of the school were excluded from the multi-billion dollar residential school settlement Canada agreed to in 2006, leading to litigation against the federal and provincial governments.

Governments respond

A statement to CBC News from the Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada department said the federal government has taken steps to engage in discussions with the province to urge it to work collaboratively with Ottawa and the Métis Nation-Saskatchewan to find a quick path to resolution.

It said the federal government is committed to resolving claims of this nature outside of the courts and wants to work closely with all parties toward addressing the legacy of the Île-à-la-Crosse Boarding School in a fair, compassionate and respectful manner.

In a statement, a provincial Ministry of Government Relations spokesperson said the Government of Saskatchewan is committed to seeking reconciliation with First Nations and Métis communities, and recognizes the harmful impacts of former residential schools.

The statement said since this matter is currently before the courts, the government is unable to provide further comment.

Common hope among Sask. Indigenous groups

CBC News reached out to two other Indigenous organizations regarding their thoughts about the Pope's upcoming visit. Representatives from the Aboriginal Friendship Centres of Saskatchewan and the Association of Métis, Non and Status Indians Saskatchewan (AMNSIS) — an affiliate of the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples — also brought up the Île-à-la-Crosse residential school.

Leonard Montgrand, the executive director of the La Loche Friendship Centre, will be among the the Île-à-la-Crosse residential school survivors in the Edmonton area for the Pope's visit.

"I mean, I won't be waving banners or jumping up and down and doing high-fives, that's for sure," he said.

Montgrand said the legacy of residential schools caused a lot of dysfunction within his family, including alcoholism.

He said it bothers him to see that survivors of the Île-à-la-Crosse residential school can't get recognized.

"This is not a huge, monumental amount of dollars we're talking about," he said. "It's [about] respect and acknowledgement and the right thing to do."

Montgrand said he hopes the Pope's visit will be the "catalyst" and "final push" that survivors need to see this settled.

"Enough. No offence to any lawyer out there, but we just don't have time to sit around and litigate with lawyers and go back and forth in courtrooms for 10 years and then all of a sudden there's nobody left to litigate for," he said.

'I wasn't a good parent': survivor

Allan Morin, a representative of AMNSIS and another survivor of the Île-à-la-Crosse residential school, will be making the trip to the Edmonton area to see the Pope with other elders and survivors.

"Hopefully, when we meet with the Pope, our prayers are heard and his blessing is given to us for Île-à-la-Crosse boarding school to finally be recognized," he said.

Morin said he became an alcoholic and didn't have parenting skills as a result of his time at the school in the 1950s.

"So it not only impacts me, but it impacts my children also because I wasn't a good parent," he said.

Morin is hoping that after the Pope's visit, communities with residential school survivors are given money to establish mental health centres "in order for us to move on."

"That's where we're going to struggle as Aboriginal people, is to forget the trauma," he said.

'Unresolved trauma'

Jessica Terlesky, a Saskatoon woman and member of the Sturgeon Lake Cree Nation in Alberta and AMNSIS, said her grandmothers attended the Roman Catholic Church's Sturgeon Lake Residential School at the same time.

"Kind of both survived in different ways," she said.

Terlesky said one grandmother, who had been raised as an only child with an uncle and aunt prior to her time at residential school, didn't have any survival skills or siblings she was raised with when she got there.

She said her other grandmother had siblings who were sometimes put in cages in the basement of the school, so she would try to steal food and bring it to them.

One time, after being caught, she had boiling porridge poured on the tops of her hands, resulting in scars, Terlesky said.

"I understand the values of religion and belonging and community," she said. "But in terms of the history of my family, there is some unresolved trauma associated with the Church."

As a child, Terlesky remembers asking one grandmother why she wouldn't hug her crying daughter.

"And she was like, 'Did you ever think I don't know how?'" she said.

Terlesky said she has been very fortunate that her parents are amazing people that broke a very traumatic cycle together — and as a family, they can openly talk about these things.

"It doesn't mean it doesn't hurt," she said. "But I recognize that there's healing in sharing and that it helps bring others understanding."

Terlesky said she has no hopes or expectations for the Pope's visit to Canada. But if one of her grandmothers — who she said read the Bible every day and night — was still alive, she thinks she would have been excited that he was coming here.

"It's weird, even though she suffered so much," Terlesky said.

Terlesky said that while she won't be going to any of the events associated with the Pope's visit, she has some family members who are excited about it.

She said they have been asking other family members who are going to be there if they can have crosses and other items blessed by the Pope.

Support is available for anyone affected by the lingering effects of residential school and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

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.