'You only heard about the Pope. The focus should be on survivors'

·12 min read

Gerri Sharpe's encounter with the Pope went viral. Roy Fabian compared this papal tour to the first one he witnessed, in 1987. They shared their experience of Pope Francis' trip to Canada.

While visiting Edmonton, Quebec City and Iqaluit, the Pope delivered an apology many had been waiting for and eventually acknowledged the Church's role in the genocide of Indigenous peoples in Canada, asking in a talk the following week for "forgiveness in the name of the Church."

That new phrasing was important for many survivors, even if it was not delivered in Canada, as his initial address stopped short of a broad apology on behalf of the Catholic Church as a whole.

Hundreds of residential school survivors and Elders travelled vast distances to see the Pope in person and hear him speak. For many, showing up at those events was not just about listening, but a personal and radical act of resilience and power.

When Gerri Sharpe, president of Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada, met with the Pope, her message and the image she posted to Facebook were shared by thousands of people.

She recounted to Cabin Radio the story behind the photo.

Gerri Sharpe: The meeting was held at a school — on purpose. You need to remember that right across both territories, the centres of every single community are the schools. From your point of view, maybe a school is where children go to learn. From the community's perspective, it is where everything happens.

When he first arrived at the school gym, there was a parade of people that came before him. I will tell you that to watch that entourage of ministers, priests and bishops with their black robes come in was traumatizing. When they passed, that was when the audience saw the Pope being wheeled into the gym.

There were Elders that immediately started crying. It wasn't quiet. And they were speaking in Inuktitut. I don't know if what they said was being communicated to the Pope, but it ranged from 'How could you do this to us?' to 'You love us' to 'Why is it only now that this is happening?'

That initial moment — many felt it — was like a splash of cold water to the face. And as four survivors told their stories, you could almost see and feel the heaviness in the room. A few times I did look towards the Pope. I was sitting very close to him. When I looked at the interpreter, he had tears in his eyes as he spoke.

I knew, when I spoke to him, that I wanted to show him my tattoos. I knew it was something that I could talk about calmly, that would ground me, that I would not be upset about. I had already resolved that I wasn't going to feel that anger when I spoke to him, I wasn't going to be angry. Because I already had an idea of what I wanted to say, and if I had gone anywhere near the topic of my mother, in that moment, I would have burst into tears.

In my generation, the abuses that I suffered, I suffered from other students. It wasn't from teachers or supervisors. I was the victim of victims. In my mother's generation, she was the one who would protect the other children. She was the oldest in her family. I was told stories of how she would offer herself up to protect those that were younger, the rotten food she was given, the cold rooms she was left in, the amount of beatings she would take, the names she was called, the amount of brainwashing that she went through. She relived it for the rest of her life, not even able to numb it with alcohol. Having to relive all that continuously is not what I experienced. That is what my mother and her generation experienced.

She attended many schools from the age of 4-19, including in Aklavik, Inuvik and Yellowknife.

She died in 2005, from cancers that she refused to see doctors about because of her trauma. It was a month before the announcement that the TRC would be formed. Her experience in residential schools is why she did not have any parenting skills. That's what I had to gain back for my children. And that's what was important for me to show: that I still have my culture, that I am a strong Inuk woman.

I really don't even think that it has to do with him, in a way. It has to do with being Inuit, and being able to show where we still are and what we almost lost. And that's what I told him: that we almost lost the meaning of the tattoos, because the Church tried to say it was evil. Even 15 years ago, traditional tattooing was still frowned upon, even by Inuit who are very grounded in their own culture. The Church had played such a role in their lives that religion and culture got mixed up in ways it never should have.

That was the significance of showing my tattoos: not as a way of penance or punishment, not to get an apology, but as vindication. This is what we've done. This is how we're still moving forward.

He had interpreters talking in his ears, one male and one female. They were all listening intently to what I was saying. And I felt that he understood. He smiled at me, he looked at my hands, at my tattoos, and I do think that it impacted him.

Many people had very different expectations as to what this visit would look like. And regardless of what those expectations were, these are fresh steps towards reconciliation. That's what we need to remember.

But as we reflect, I want to emphasize that the focus from media and from others should not be on the Pope — it should be on survivors. There are so many residential school survivors that are still alive, that have stories that they didn't get to share. You only heard about the Pope. This is where I hope there isn't going to trauma re-opened as a result. This is a moment for worldwide attention to be focused on those survivors, for reconciliation to take a giant leap forward, and for the rest of the world to know why it was important that he came here.

For Roy Fabian, the delegation from the Kátł'odeeche First Nation to Edmonton brought back many old memories.

Almost 35 years earlier, on September 20, 1987, he had been part of the security team in Fort Simpson, holding back crowds that had gathered to see Pope John Paul II. He had mixed feelings about the Papal visit then but was assigned to stand near the podium, where he was able to see and listen closely to what was said.

Roy Fabian: Back then, I still hadn't done any work on myself, so there was still a lot of anger and resentment towards the Church. So I was confused about the whole visit, but I also knew it was an important event, because the Elders were the ones requesting that the Pope come to the people.

And I listened to the Elders as they spoke to the Pope in their own language. Because I was fluent in Dene, I really understood what the Elders were talking about, and I heard them talking about how we could begin to relate to one another in a good way.

That, to me, was quite significant. And the Pope's message at that time kind-of surprised me. He didn't apologize, like this Pope did, but what he did say was: 'No culture should be put down and oppressed. That is not the Christian way.' He encouraged Indigenous people to begin to uphold our culture and our customs. To be strong Indigenous people. For me, that was new.

At that time, I was just starting to think about what was happening with me as an individual, and I was quite early in my healing. But I thought about that message.

In 1988, the Elders nominated me for chief. At that time, being the way that I was, I didn't even think of asking my wife, I just accepted the nomination. I went home for supper that day and told her I had been nominated. She asked me, 'Are you going to run?' and I said yes. We sat there and ate for a while. Then she said, 'Roy... you're not ready to be chief.'

I was a little bit shocked. But I was also determined. So I ran for chief and I did get elected. Back then, the term for chief was two years. By the end of that two years I found out what my wife was talking about. I wasn't ready. And I began to realize that I wasn't a healthy person. I talked to the Elders that had asked me to run and I told them that I needed healing. And I asked them if they would support me to go for treatment. They supported me. I had been a falling-down drunk and all on my own, I managed to quit drinking. Then I went to treatment.

It really was an eye-opener... how sick I really was, you know? My way of thinking was that of a colonized Dene, but at the time I didn't know that's what it was. I was racist, angry and resentful. I thought I was right all the time. Deep down, I had so much shame about being who I was, about being Dene.

It wasn't an easy journey. Being colonized, being a colonized person, you don't know that there's any other way to think. You have to challenge your way of thinking and replace it with Dene concepts. And those concepts are simple: love, kindness, respect and caring for one another.

When you're colonized, your heart might be in the right place, but you don't know how to follow it. You might learn in your head to start thinking differently, but in order to learn in your heart, you need Dene ceremonies. It's there that you learn that the opposite of love is fear. The opposite of kindness is cruelty. The opposite of respect is contempt. And the opposite of caring is neglect.

I worked as executive director of a treatment program, and then at the Dene Cultural Institute as a training coordinator, passing on those lessons, becoming more and more Dene.

That's what I've been doing in the many years since that first visit in 1987. So this time around, being present for the Pope's visit was really special. Because I'm a little bit more Dene than I was then. I'm a little bit more humble, more in harmony with things. I honour people, and I'm humane. And those are Dene ways.

So when I went there, I didn't go with any real purpose. I just wanted to be there and listen to the Pope. And being a former chief, I knew all the chiefs across Canada. They were going to have a grand entry with all the chiefs, and one of them recognized me and invited to me join them.

I hesitated because that wasn't my purpose. But at the same time, it was a honour, and I didn't want to reject that. So I agreed, and walked with all the other chiefs. And it was a really humbling experience for me. But at the same time, I just felt that I belonged there. I showed up with humility, with honour, with humanity. I felt the blessing the Pope offered.

To me, it wasn't important that I shake his hand or anything. Just being there in his presence was enough.

One of the things I learned from my Elders is that Dene people believe that God manifests through creation, and God is in everything. In the air, in the fire, in the water, in the land, in the trees and everything, including you and me. We're all God's spirit.

The Pope is a great man from his own world. Every culture out there, God gave them certain gifts, certain ways of relating. And there's nobody that's right or wrong. Nobody is more or better. And to me, that's where the Pope made his apology. He talked about how supremacy was applied to try to make us succumb. To take away our culture and our language, our way of knowing.

Because for the Dene, our way of relating is with the land. Through the land, we gained our beliefs, our values, our knowledge and our skills. And we thrived on the land. So that's who we are. That's what we lost. I don't think many people know how much we lost because what they know is the colonized way. They know oppression. They know concepts that keep us colonized. That's what I've learned from the Elders, since that first visit.

In 1987, I was confused. But this time, I knew why I was there. I had fulfilled the Pope's message, to uphold our culture and our customs.

It still hurts, when you see your people suffering, and the sad thing is that they don't even know that they are suffering. We've got a lot of work to do, still. But for me as an individual, the Pope's visit was a kind of crowning... of what I accomplished over the past 35 years.

The National Indian Residential School Crisis Line is open for 24 hours a day, seven days a week for those needing to talk. Call 1-855-925-4419. The Dene Nation also has a list of supports available.

Caitrin Pilkington, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Cabin Radio