As a media circus followed Pope Francis on his “pilgrimage of penance” to Canada, Indigenous people had vastly different reactions to his words and the difficult memories of residential schools that his visit triggered.
“I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples,” said Pope Francis near the former Ermineskin Indian Residential School in Maskwacis, Alberta, during his first public address.
Referencing stories he was told during the Indigenous delegation’s trip to Rome four months ago, the Pope said he was “deeply sorry” for the “colonizing mentality” supported by many Christians “in projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation … which culminated in the system of residential schools.”
During his initial speech, Francis presented moccasins given to him in Rome symbolizing the children that never returned home. He called this apology only a starting point, stating a “serious investigation” of past incidents and support for survivors’ healing were an important part of the process.
The visit coincided July 26 with the Feast of Saint Anne, venerated by many Indigenous Catholics as the grandmother of Jesus. The Pope visited several sites dedicated to the saint and using the Cree word for grandmother, kokum, he made parallels to the vital role of Indigenous women and Elders in their communities.
The Pope’s words provoked a range of strong and conflicting emotions among attendees. Former Assembly of First Nations National Chief Phil Fontaine witnessed “a humble person begging for forgiveness”, asserting it was an important step for many to move forward with peace and solace.
While recognizing the importance of Pope Francis’ historic words of contrition, Murray Sinclair, former chair of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, felt the statement left a “deep hole” by placing blame with individual members of the Church, which minimized the destructive influence of the institution itself in instigating cultural genocide.
Sinclair also emphasized the Church’s continued silence regarding the Doctrine of Discovery, the 15th-century papal edict that justified Christian colonial expansion and subjugation of Indigenous peoples. Pope Francis couldn’t ignore this issue when a giant “Rescind the Doctrine” banner was unfurled by Indigenous activists before he led mass at the Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré Basilica outside Quebec City.
Before the Pope’s public address at Quebec’s Citadelle, thousands had gathered on the Plains of Abraham, including a group of survivors completing a seven-day 275-km march from the Innu community of Mashteuiatsh. While survivors from several Cree communities made the trip, including a busload from Mistissini, Chisasibi chose not to send an official delegation.
“As a main location in Eeyou Istchee where residential schools were located – sites that constantly remind us of our pain and trauma – Council has decided to move ahead with this important part of our healing at home,” stated Chief Daisy House. “Chisasibi Eeyouch are feeling raw, challenging emotions already, and this week will trigger more pain in the coming days.”
The community focused instead on collective healing and traditional activities at its annual Fort George Residential School Gathering. Ahead of the Pope’s visit, Chief House reiterated demands for the release of all church records as “these heavily guarded archives hold so many pieces of our true history.”
Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty met Pope Francis at the Citadelle, joined by youth delegate Allison MacLeod and Chisasibi survivor Clara Napash. Napash, who first entered a residential school on Fort George Island at age 2, said she was grateful to be there on behalf of all survivors and “those who have already gone home to the spirit world, also, those who never made it home.”
During his sermon, the Pope said the Church is asking itself “burning questions” on “its difficult and demanding journey of healing and reconciliation” but didn’t specifically mention residential schools. Waswanipi survivor Romeo Saganash found the address “hugely disappointing”.
While the congregation was largely comprised of residential school survivors, many watched from the sideline. Bella Jolly from Nemaska left the basilica early because she had trouble understanding the Pope’s Spanish but said she accepted his apology to progress on her healing journey.
During a prayer service later that evening, Pope Francis acknowledged sexual abuse inflicted on “minors and vulnerable people” for the first time on the trip without specifying this happened at residential schools.
At his final stop in Iqaluit, Nunavut, Pope Francis was accompanied by traditional dancers, drummers and throat singers who explained how these cultural practices were banned in residential schools. Saying “mamianaq” (the Inuktitut word for “sorry”), he condemned “the evil perpetrated by not a few Catholics” at these schools.
Although he discussed the residential school system’s harms and assimilation practices in diverse speeches over the week, it wasn’t until questioned by reporters on his flight home that the Pope clarified he was describing “a genocide.” This final reflection satisfied many that his visit was an eye-opening experience.
Gull-Masty observed that the Pope is setting the tone for how he expects the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops to proceed with the next steps in the long road to reconciliation.
“While the efforts of the Pope are recognized, expectations are now very high on what will come next,” said Gull-Masty. “The apology must be followed by concrete actions to open their records and rescind the Doctrine of Discovery, for it is the truth that will guide our healing journey.”
Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Nation