Warning: The story below contains details about abuse in residential schools that may be upsetting. Canada’s National Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day on 1-866-925-4419.
Maskwacis, Canada – My eyes were drawn to the thousands of people walking through the fields in Maskwacis, Alberta. It was a momentous occasion; within an hour, Pope Francis would arrive to deliver a long-awaited apology to the victims of Canada’s residential schools.
It was the morning of July 25 and these Indigenous people were making their way to the main pow wow arbour at the reservation of the Ermineskin Cree, one of four Indigenous nations that make up the community, about 100km (62 miles) south of Alberta’s capital city of Edmonton.
As I watched them, I broke down and cried. After documenting the stories of countless survivors of the residential schools in my work as an Indigenous journalist and travelling to Rome where the pope first apologised on April 1, I was finally about to witness an admission of the evils the Catholic Church had inflicted upon Indigenous children on their own native lands.
I am from the Michel First Nation, a band of Cree and Iroquois people who were displaced from our reserve west of Edmonton. My beloved “Kohkum” (grandmother in Cree) was a survivor of the notorious residential schools and I have carried her pain throughout my lifetime.
The residential schools ripped families apart, forced assimilation and committed horrifying abuses against generations of Indigenous children. These evils were revealed for all the world to see in 2021, with the discovery of the unmarked graves of hundreds of Indigenous children who never made it home. The Catholic Church ran 60 percent of Canada’s 139 residential schools.
The graves, which are still being discovered across the country, galvanised the Church to finally respond to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s call for the pontiff to apologise for the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical and sexual abuse of Indigenous, Inuit and Metis (mixed Indigenous and non-Indigenous) children in the schools.
‘I am deeply sorry’
As helicopters and drones flew overhead and police and security officers flanked those gathered, the frail and wheelchair-bound pope arrived. He said a prayer at the Ermineskin cemetery before being wheeled down a newly paved road to a large field where three teepees stood alongside photos of the Ermineskin Indian Residential School that had once stood on the site.
Standing close to him during this powerful moment of remembrance, regret and silent prayer, I searched his face for the deep sorrow he proclaimed to feel. His features registered pain as he “begged” for forgiveness.
Then the procession to the pow wow arbour continued with the pontiff accompanied by chiefs from the four nations of the Maskwacis. Sitting on a raised stage, he spoke the words the survivors had been waiting for: “I am deeply sorry.” The response from the survivors was a sigh of relief, followed by tears and hugs.
Wilton Littlechild, a former Truth and Reconciliation commissioner and Ermineskin Indian Residential School survivor, who has advocated for an apology for more than 20 years, crowned Pope Francis with a white-feathered headdress that once belonged to his grandfather.
Along with cheers from the crowd, there were gasps of disbelief that such an honour – normally reserved for high leadership and ceremonial purposes – had been bestowed upon the pope. But Littlechild said he had made the decision along with local elders, to help seal the reconciliatory nature of the visit.
“Many survivors, about 7,000 of them I had spoken with during my time as commissioner told me all they wanted to hear was: ‘I am sorry,’ on our own lands,” Littlefield told me. “And when [the pope] responded, he told me, ‘I was ashamed, I was deeply moved and from the bottom of my heart I am very sorry’.”
An unplanned appearance by Si Phi Ko, a Cree mother who had travelled to Maskwacis from Treaty 1 territory in Winnipeg, followed. Dressed in a white buckskin dress and a crown decorated with colourful beading, Si Phi Ko stepped forward just below where the pope stood. Then, raising her fist high in the air, she sang in her own language so that even those of us who did not understand the words recognised the message – her voice strong, her face devastated, she sang the anguish of lost generations.
Tears of healing
The following evening, the pope travelled to the Lac Ste Anne pilgrimage site, in my homelands in Treaty 6, where Indigenous believers have gathered for more than 100 years and my ancestors have considered the waters sacred for millennia. My Kohkum had been born not far from there, and she, my mother and I had all joined past pilgrimages to the site.
It felt like a full-circle moment for me: although my Kohkum, who had forgiven the Church, had not lived to see this day, my mother, who previously had not wanted anything to do with the pope or the Catholic Church, decided to come at the last moment. She was doing it for Kohkum, she told me. “This was the last place we brought her when she was passing away. We have a lot of memories here; there was something sacred about this place,” she said.
Tears of healing streamed down my mother’s face as she spoke of her forgiveness for what was done to our people, and as I sat on the sand – the pope just feet away from me – I felt Kohkum’s spirit.
Early the next morning, we flew to Quebec City, where Pope Francis would participate in a number of events over two days. The days were long and taxing and the emotional toll of covering a story so personal to me felt heavy.
On Thursday, July 28, thousands of spectators lined up outside Sanctuaire Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupre for a papal mass. As the pontiff paraded in his “popemobile,” waving at the cheering crowds and kissing babies, I felt revolted. Instead of exuding the sombre tone required to make penance, it felt like a rock concert.
The Quebec premier, François Legault, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrived at the church with their entourages, but the survivors and their families seemed to fade into the background.
Eastern Gate Windspeaking Woman, a survivor who had travelled more than 500km (311 miles) from New Brunswick, told me she felt like a “Christmas ornament” and was not sure she belonged there. “It’s not about the survivors,” she said. “I felt we were pushed aside, like we didn’t matter.”
I left the event early.
In the high Arctic
On Friday morning, we jetted off to the remote city of Iqaluit in Canada’s least populous region of Nunavut in the high Arctic. It was the last stop of the papal apology tour and entailed a much more intimate and austere event.
The summer landscape of the vast territory was lush with greenery, snow-capped mountains and purple saxifraga flowers that grew in clusters along the tundra floor. Faded wooden row boats dotted the shores of the ocean inlet, and white canvas hunting tent villages were pitched outside the borders of the city. A majority of the Inuit speak their native language of Inuktitut. Mothers carried their babies on their backs in amautis, a traditional oversized jacket, to keep them warm and close under the cloudy skies above.
I mingled among the thousands who gathered in front of a large field near the elementary school where the pope gave his speech.
“How evil it is to break the bonds uniting parents and children, to damage our closest relationships, to harm and scandalise the little ones,” Pope Francis said, speaking of “the indignation and shame” he had felt for months.
“I want to tell you how very sorry I am and to ask for forgiveness,” he continued, before adding “I’m sorry,” in Inuktitut, the Inuit language children were once forbidden from speaking in residential schools
Piita Irniq, a 75-year-old survivor of Chesterfield Inlet, the most notorious residential school in Nunavut, performed a traditional song and dance, playing a handmade drum. Then he approached the pope, who was seated on a white chair with seal skin backing that resembled a throne, bent down and gifted the drum to him. To me, that moment – a survivor who had lived through hell lovingly giving a gift of great reverence to the man who represented his abusers – showed the incredible resiliency of the human spirit and the ability to forgive.
On the papal plane later that evening before returning to Rome, Pope Francis declared that genocide was committed against Indigenous people in Canada. This is something we have known all along. But to hear it from the leader of such a powerful institution felt like a revolutionary breakthrough. This public acknowledgement has implications that will, hopefully, help the process of healing and reconciliation.
But just because the apology tour is over it does not mean the road to reckoning and reparations is. We have a long way to go on this journey with the Church and with governmental powers and institutions in Canada. We must keep the momentum of the broken hearts of all who were affected by the unmarked graves and the truths of the colonial harms that took place. We must use it as fuel to create a new and just way forward to ensure no children or families will ever have to experience this nightmare again.