In Windsor-Essex, Pope's apology sparks calls for more action from church

·3 min read
Pope Francis is shown with Indigenous chiefs at the Ermineskin Cree Nation Cemetery in Maskwacis, Alta., during his papal visit across Canada on Monday, July 25, 2022. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Pope Francis is shown with Indigenous chiefs at the Ermineskin Cree Nation Cemetery in Maskwacis, Alta., during his papal visit across Canada on Monday, July 25, 2022. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press - image credit)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

Pope Francis' historic apology over residential schools was welcomed by some members of the Indigenous community in Windsor-Essex, but it was also met with calls for the church to follow it up with action.

"Finally," said Windsor's Indigenous storyteller Theresa Sims, as her voice broke with emotion. "It's been a long time, many generations, and our voices are being heard."

On Monday, Pope Francis apologized for members of the Catholic Church who co-operated with Canada's "devastating" policy of Indigenous residential schools, saying the forced assimilation of Indigenous peoples into Christian society destroyed their cultures, severed their families and marginalized generations in ways still being felt today.

"I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples," Francis told thousands of Indigenous people, including many survivors, in Maskwacis, Alta.

"Here from this place, associated with painful memories, I would like to begin what I consider a pilgrimage. A penitential pilgrimage," he said, speaking from the site of the former Ermineskin Indian Residential School, one of the largest in Canada.

Katerina Georgieva/CBC
Katerina Georgieva/CBC

Sims, who is Mohawk, spoke with CBC prior to the apology on Monday. She said it brought mixed emotions.

Both her mother and father, who are now deceased, were survivors of the Mohawk Residential School in Brantford, Ont., which was affiliated with the Anglican Church.

But this day was something her mother had wanted to see.

"I wish my mom could have heard the apology," she said. "I wish all of those children could have come home. I wish that they could have healed more and … they could have had time with their parents to learn about that unconditional love that was there."

Calls for action

Now, Sims wants to know what's next. She's calling for concrete action from the Catholic Church.

"They need to put up funding for the things they took from us: Our language, our culture, our ceremonies," she said.

Katerina Georgieva/CBC
Katerina Georgieva/CBC

Esentsei Staats-Pangowish, who is a master's student in law at the University of Windsor, also wants to see action in the form of funding to support healing.

"The reality is, is that residential school has created such a gap of intergenerational trauma or such intergenerational trauma that impacts all levels of Indigenous peoples lives, and I mean mental health, health, addictions, poverty, education," said Staats-Pangowish, whose background is Haudenosaunee from Six Nations of the Grand River and Anishnawbe from Wikiwemikoog Unceded Territory.

Each of those areas need funding so that Indigenous people can self-govern, she said.

She called the apology a good first step and "where we start to heal." But she said she was also angry that an apology was only coming now.

"Although Pope Francis was not the one who committed the heinous acts against Indigenous children in residential schools, I think that the office that he represents played a big role in the facilitation of residential schools and the harms that came to indigenous children and communities through intergenerational trauma," she said.

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools or 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.

Mental health counselling and crisis support is also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat at www.hopeforwellness.ca.

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