International News

Canadian Indigenous Grateful for Papal Apology, But They Want More

Pope Francis meets with First Nations, MÈtis and Inuit communities at Maskwacis, Alberta, July 25, 2022. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

By Elise Ann Allen

ROME (Crux) — Survivors of Canada’s residential school system who were present for Pope Francis’ apology Monday described the moment as historic and “bittersweet,” but said the highly anticipated mea culpa will only be meaningful if it’s followed by concrete action.

Speaking during a press conference after the pope’s apology, Samson Cree Nation Chief Vernon Saddleback said, “Words cannot describe how important today is for the healing journey for a lot of First Nations people.”

“I’m really grateful for this event to happen,” he said, calling the apology a historic moment not only for Canada but for all First Nations communities. “It was an amazing day, a historic day…words fail me to say what this means to my people.”

Similarly, Frog Leg Cree Nation Chief Greg Desjarlais voiced gratitude that a papal apology finally happened in Canada, saying, “today is a bittersweet day.”

“It’s bitter in some people’s minds and hearts, some people are upset, but it’s also sweet for some that have moved on and moved into a direction of healing,” he said, saying, “There is a better life for our people out there, even though our ancestors went through the social ills, the atrocities, the abuse.”

As members of First Nations communities, Desjarlais said survivors can take Pope Francis’ apology, “accept it, and move forward the best we know how, or we can be stuck.”

“I want to encourage survivors to move forward in a good way,” he said, calling them “the drivers that will help change the landscape for our children and grandchildren.”

Desjarlais said he felt that Pope Francis’ apology was sincere and that the pontiff “really did some homework, that he really dug in and made it as meaningful as he could.”

After landing in Canada Sunday, Pope Francis, during his first public event, met with members of the First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities on the grounds of the former Ermineskin residential school in Maskwacis, Alberta.

During the meeting, Pope Francis said he was “deeply sorry” for the ways in which “many Christians supported the colonizing mentality of the powers that oppressed the Indigenous peoples” and for the Church’s complicity “in projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation promoted by the governments of that time, which culminated in the system of residential schools.”

The apology came as the first stage in Pope Francis’s July 24-30 visit to Canada, made specifically to further the Church’s healing and reconciliation efforts with First Nations, given the physical, psychological, sexual, spiritual, and cultural abuse that roughly 150,000 children endured in the residential schools after being forcibly removed from their families.

Pope Francis’ apology was also a direct response to one of the calls to action issued by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which asked that the pope issue an apology on Canadian soil, given the importance of land in Indigenous culture and tradition.

During Monday’s press conference, Chief Desmond Bull of Louis Bull Tribe said that as a residential school survivor, he is “still healing and reconnecting to the traditions that our ancestors were not allowed to pass on.”

“I’m sure emotions will be high in the aftermath of this apology,” he said, and criticized those who have told First Nations to “get over it” and move on.

“We can’t get over it when the last of our residential schools closed in the mid-90s, when our survivors are still here, when that intergenerational trauma impacts every youth and every member, every family who had a survivor of residential schools,” he said.

“Instead of getting over it, I’m asking you to get with it, get with learning about our history, get with learning about our culture, our people, who we are,” Bull said, saying the best way to help members of First Nations heal is to get to know survivors and to “be part of that journey.”

Chief Tony Alexis of the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation stressed the importance of Pope Francis’ apology being delivered on the grounds of a former residential school, where the atrocities that many children endured took place.

“As we approached this day, there was a sense of hope, a sense of hope that this apology will bring healing to them immediately,” he said. While this is not possible, Alexis said people “were triggered” by the pope’s words, which for some, reopened old wounds.

“We can’t just leave it like that,” Alexis said, and stressed the need to do more, saying, “we have to really take the steps to help heal and recover our people.”

Both the Catholic Church and the government “need to step up to this. You can’t just say I’m sorry and walk away. There has to be effort, there has to be work, and more meaningful action behind it,” he said, adding, “There’s a lot of work that still has to happen.”

Evelyn Korkmaz, a survivor who attended St. Anne’s residential school, shared this sentiment, saying she has waited 50 years for a papal apology, “and finally today I heard it.”

Calling the moment “overwhelming,” Korkmaz said that when she heard Pope Francis say he was sorry, “Part of me is rejoiced, part of me is sad, part of me is numb.”

“I am glad I lived long enough to have witnessed this apology, but I want more because 50 years is too long to wait for an apology,” she said, saying she was disappointed that Pope Francis did not present “a work plan” of how he intends to continue the path of reconciliation, “because reconciliation means many different things to different people.”

Korkmaz said she is hoping to attend papal events in Quebec on Wednesday and that she hopes Pope Francis, during his time there, “extends his apology” and presents a plan for going forward.

She called for the opening of Church archives as a means of giving closure to survivors and their families. For all First Nations, knowing information such as the identification of children buried in unmarked graves on school grounds would help them to move on, she said, adding, “this is all we are asking.”

The request to open Church archives was also brought up during the visit of several Indigenous delegations to the Vatican in March, ahead of Pope Francis’ trip to Canada.

Speaking to Crux in a recent interview, Bishop Raymond Poisson of Saint-Jérôme, Québec, who is president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB), said the bishops who traveled with the delegations in March asked Vatican departments about any documents they might have on file about the residential schools, but were told there was no central archive on that information in Rome.

Everything is in Canada, he said, but cautioned that the archives of communities that ran the residential schools are mostly sacramental, documenting “when these children did their First Communion or Confirmation,” whereas archives on the schools themselves and the children who attended are kept by the government.

Survivors who attended Monday’s press conference called for the Church and the government to do more, saying that the papal apology, while necessary and appreciated, by itself is not enough.

Jon Cryer, an Elder, Knowledge Keeper and Survivor from Samson Cree Nation, recounted his experience of physical and spiritual abuse at a residential school, saying he witnessed classmates being beaten for speaking their native languages and was told that the traditional spirituality practiced by his parents and grandparents was both a “superstition” and the work of the devil.

Given the vast damage done, “I ask myself, is this apology enough?” he said, saying the apology is “a huge opportunity” for civil and ecclesial leaders to make real progress in healing and reconciliation.

“The Church and the rest of Canada, the government, while we’re doing this work of healing, I’m expecting that they also will be doing their work. After all, we’re in this together,” he said.

Chief Randy Ermineskin of Ermineskin Cree Nation, who is a residential school survivor, said the apology was highly significant and that as Pope Francis spoke, his mind was filled with memories of his classmates and the abuses they all endured.

“It’s about truth, justice, healing, reconciliation, but one thing I want to talk about today is hope,” he said, saying, “We have to really encourage and bring hope to our communities.

Grand Chief George Arcand Jr. of the Alexander First Nation said the “unspeakable” trauma children endured at residential schools must never be forgotten.

He said the Pope Francis’ apology was meaningful and voiced hope that it helped “each person in their own way” to find healing.

“Today, we learned that the Church has a way to go,” he said, saying there is “a bigger challenge” ahead as the healing process moves forward.

“We need to move the goalposts,” he said, saying, “the system within the Church needs to be unlearned, their ways of patronizing our people.

Indigenous must be looked at as partners, he said, saying, “I have faith this can be done. I know it can be done.” The pope’s apology, Arcand said, is merely “a first step in making amends towards our people.”

“After meeting with the pope and hearing his words today, I believe there’s a path forward together,” he said. “Pope Francis has shown grace, he can lead the change for his people, and we are prepared to walk alongside them in their reconciliation journey.”