It was a scene that, until it happened, was almost impossible to imagine. The Holy Father delivering an apology in a First Nation community, surrounded by the same Indigenous language, regalia, culture and ceremony the Catholic Church had once intentionally – and often brutally – attempted to eradicate.
“Today I am here, in this land that, along with its ancient memories, preserves the scars of still open wounds,” Pope Francis said in Spanish, which was then translated and spoken in English to a hushed crowd on Monday in Maskwacis – a community south of Edmonton that was once home to the Ermineskin Indian Residential School, one of the largest residential schools in the country.
“I am here because the first step of my penitential pilgrimage among you is that of again asking forgiveness. Of telling you once more that I am deeply sorry,” the Pope said. “Sorry for the ways in which, regrettably, many Christians supported the colonizing mentality of the powers that oppressed the Indigenous people.”
It was an apology that some had been awaiting all their lives. It touched on far-reaching and systematic abuse of Indigenous people and the devastation of the residential school system, and included a pledge to investigate what took place and help survivors heal. But while Pope Francis’s words went further than some expected, for others they were not enough, and were delivered too late for many who had suffered the worst.
“It’s been a very emotional day for me as a survivor. I had my ups and downs, my hoorays, my disappointments. My wanting more and not getting it,” said Evelyn Korkmaz, a residential school survivor and advocate. “I waited 50 years for this apology, and finally today I heard it. Unfortunately, a lot of my family members, friends, classmates and members of my community that went to residential school were not able to hear it.”
Alphina Yellowfly was one of thousands of people who travelled to Maskwacis for what was expected to be – and was – a historic apology for the treatment First Nations, Métis and Inuit people suffered at the hands of church members. It was Pope Francis’s first public address since his arrival in Canada on Sunday.
“I was praying this morning, thinking about my parents,” said Ms. Yellowfly, who had travelled from the Siksika Nation in southern Alberta. “I’m a survivor in this. I just lost an auntie who was a survivor … I’m grateful to be here to witness this.”
A tear traced down her cheek. “I think it’s time for closure,” she said.
The day in Maskwacis was one of both rain and sun – unsettled skies that, to attendee Annette Niven, felt deeply symbolic.
“I came here and the sun was shining and the rain was coming down, and I thought, ‘There’s our children up there crying,’” said Ms. Niven, who travelled from The Pas, Man. for the appearance. She looked skyward. “There’s our survivors up there that have gone to the other side.”
Beside her, Beetle Omeasoo, who is from Maskwacis and attended the Ermineskin residential school, said the day felt like a blessing. “It’s history being made, the Pope being here, especially on our Indigenous lands,” he said.
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Before the Pope’s arrival, volunteers circulated through the crowd passing out packages of tissues, and cards with resources for mental health support. People moved through the crowd smudging, and the smells of sage and sweetgrass floated in the breeze. There were ribbon skirts and jingle dresses, beadwork, Métis sashes, headdresses, flags, moccasins and blankets.
And, everywhere, orange shirts bearing the words: “Every Child Matters”
Pope Francis arrived at Maskwacis around 9:45 a.m. He stopped at Our Lady of Seven Sorrows Church, and then visited the Ermineskin Cree Nation Cemetery and the site of what was once the Ermineskin Indian Residential School, where he sat silently for several moments in his wheelchair, at one point placing his hand over his heart.
Then he travelled to Muskwa Park, a large outdoor arbour usually used to host powwows in the community, where he was welcomed with a grand entry procession of chiefs and former chiefs, dancers, elders and other dignitaries, while traditional songs of honour and healing were performed.
A number of people carried a 50-metre-long, bright red banner through the aisles. On it were printed the names of residential schools in Canada, and of the 4,120 Indigenous children who didn’t return home from them, whether because of illness, accidents, abuse, neglect or other, still unknown causes.
“That’s where my mother went,” said Maskwacis resident Debbie Buffalo, noting one of the school names as the banner passed.
Reading from a prepared statement on printed pages, Pope Francis recalled meeting with an Indigenous delegation in Rome four months ago, and being given two pairs of moccasins as a sign of the suffering endured by Indigenous children in Canada.
He said the moccasins kept alive his sorrow, indignation and shame, and were a painful but important symbol to him. He said he was asked to bring the moccasins back with him to Canada, and had done so.
“The place where we are gathered renews within me the deep sense of pain and remorse that I have felt in these past months,” the 85-year-old pontiff said. “I think back on the tragic situations that so many of you, your families and your communities have known. Of what you shared with me about the suffering you endured in the residential schools.”
One of the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was that the Pope deliver an apology on Indigenous lands, and he personally apologized several times during his statement.
“I myself wish to reaffirm this, with shame and unambiguously,” he said. “I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples.”
The crowd applauded at several points while he spoke.
Afterward, a feathered headdress was placed onto the Pope’s head by Chief Wilton Littlechild, an international chief who is from Maskwacis and was instrumental in bringing the Pope there. The stop will be the Pope’s only visit to a former residential school site during his travels in Canada this week.
At a press conference with community leaders later, elder John Crier said the headdress was a way of honouring Pope Francis and the work he has done, and adopting him as an honourary leader in the community.
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After the event, those in attendance were left considering the apology, and dealing with the emotions it evoked.
“I’m feeling sad, because it triggered something in him and he’s still having a hard time,” said Prince Albert resident Gladys Charles. Her husband, Mathew, stood alongside her, tears welling in his eyes. Ms. Charles said her husband was in residential school from age 6 to 11.
“He hasn’t spoken the story of what has happened to him,” she said. “He still hasn’t told me all the things that happened.”
Pope Francis referred to policies of assimilation that systemically marginalized Indigenous people and denigrated and suppressed their culture. He said children at the schools were abused physically, verbally, psychologically and spiritually. But while he described the policies that led to the existence of the schools as “a disastrous error,” with effects that were “catastrophic,” he did not apologize for the role of the Catholic Church in establishing and running the schools, an omission that left some feeling his apology fell short.
Kukdookaa Terri Brown, a residential school survivor and the founding chair of the survivors circle with the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, was among those in the audience listening with mixed emotions.
“I’m happy to hear that he said the words ‘I’m sorry,’ but it wasn’t as encompassing as it could have been,” said Ms. Brown, who is also the former chief of the Tahltan Band in Telegraph Creek, B.C.
She said she was also disappointed that he did not specifically mention sexual abuse or repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery and replace it with another papal decree “that embraces and encourages Indigenous rights, and Indigenous well-being and health.”
In a press conference held by the Confederacy of Treaty Six Chiefs after the visit to Maskwacis, the leaders were moved at times to tears as they reflected on the events of the day. They expressed the complexity of the emotion, both for themselves personally as survivors and relatives of survivors, and for their broader communities. And they spoke about what more will be required from here.
“The Pope, too, is a human being, and he was a child when this was going on as well,” said Grand Chief George Arcand Jr. “For him to come, he’s brave to try and take that whole weight on his shoulders and try to make it all right. But it’s going to take time, and it’s going to take generations for our people to heal.”
Samson Cree Nation Chief Vernon Saddleback described Monday as, “a day for everyone in the world to sit back and listen.”
“The Pope said he was sorry,” said Chief Randy Ermineskin of the Ermineskin Cree Nation. “That is going to send a message across these lands, these waters.”
Ms. Korkmaz, who joined the chiefs at the press conference, she said she hopes to see action come out of the apology, such as the release of church documents and school records.
“They belong to us,” she said. “This is our history.”
While the Pope delivered his apology in Maskwacis – which is made up of Samson Cree Nation, Ermineskin Cree Nation, Montana First Nation and the Louis Bull Tribe – he said he was aware of the sufferings and traumas experienced by Indigenous peoples in every region of this country, and that his words were intended for all.
He also said he would be encouraging all Catholics to support Indigenous people, and acknowledged that his appearance would bring back memories and pain.
“To remember the devastating experiences that took place in the residential schools hurts, angers, causes pain, and yet it is necessary,” he said. “It is necessary to remember how the policies of assimilation and enfranchisement, which also included the residential school system, were devastating for the people of these lands.”
After the apology, the Pope spent a moment in silent prayer and reflection, and led a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. He then departed for Sacred Heart Catholic Church of the First Peoples, in Edmonton’s inner city.
The church was smudged before his arrival, and only about 150 parishioners were selected for the encounter. There, the Pope sat under four tipi poles, while children presented him with gifts, including art from Indigenous artists, eagle feathers and a star blanket.
With a report from Joy SpearChief-Morris
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