As the second-youngest child, Anna Betty Achneepineskum didn’t go to residential school like her seven older siblings. She and her little sister were spared the experiences and traumas endured by their siblings and hundreds of others who were forced to attend one of several government- and church-run residential schools that operated in Northern Ontario.
As deputy grand chief for Nishnawbe Aski Nation, a political organization representing 49 mostly remote First Nations in Northern Ontario, Ms. Achneepineskum will join a small group of residential school survivors from NAN travelling to the site of the former Ermineskin Residential School in Alberta on Monday, where Pope Francis is expected to deliver a wider apology than the one he offered to an Indigenous delegation in Rome in April.
For the historic moment, 300 cultural support workers will be on hand in Alberta to aid residential school survivors. For many of the survivors, the weeklong papal visit – which includes stops in Quebec City and Iqaluit – will open old wounds and trigger traumas buried within their minds, hearts and spirits.
Although she’s not attending formally as a cultural worker, Ms. Achneepineskum is providing a quiet, familiar kind of support to the survivors she’s accompanying as they travel thousands of kilometres from home. A trusted leader, she has the regional cultural knowledge, sensitivities and teachings that provide the comfort and strength required to get through such significant, triggering events.
Ms. Achneepineskum said her father, like many other survivors, never talked about his short time at one of the institutions, and that many from the far North are only now starting to open up about what happened to them decades ago.
“The Pope’s apology is very significant in terms of that acknowledgment coming from him, for some [survivors] that’s important. For others, they have made a lot of efforts, they have found their own way of creating that peace.”
At a press conference held by the Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations leadership in Alberta last week, Grand Chief George Arcand Jr. said the papal visit is an important part of the healing journey for survivors who “have been carrying unimaginable trauma for many generations.” Ermineskin Cree Nation Chief Randy Ermineskin said it is critical to have supports for survivors during and after the papal visit.
“The feelings that will come next week will not just disappear, they’ll continue to persist,” Chief Ermineskin said. “We must keep supporting the people and let them know that there are services available and helps available to help them, guide them through this process because it’s not going to be an easy one.
Shannon Doubleday, director of mental wellness in Alberta for Indigenous Services Canada, said that in the recruitment drive for cultural support workers, more than 500 individuals from across the country expressed their interest and some had to be turned away. The department was able to reach its goal of finding 300 support workers from Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, British Columbia, and the Northwest Territories.
She said about 50 per cent of them identified as First Nations, with a large number self-identifying as survivors or descendants of survivors of the Indian Residential School System. Of those who did not identify as Indigenous, 75 to 80 per cent of individuals identified having a breadth of experience working with First Nations communities, both urban and on reserve, as well as offering an array of knowledge of Indigenous languages.
“We really tried to move into this with a two-eyed seeing lens. So having both traditional Indigenous knowledge and practice alongside with Western knowledge and practice,” Ms. Doubleday said.
The federal government has committed $3-million in mental-health supports for the three host locations in Alberta, Quebec and Nunavut, part of the total $35-million going toward supporting Indigenous communities and survivors for the papal visit with expenses such as travel costs, translation costs and local events in Indigenous communities.
The cultural support workers in Alberta – who received orientation and training from the Red Cross – will be identifiable by their blue vests and hats. They will offer outreach services and traditional healing and ceremony in tents or tipis. Smudging will be available at all sites for individuals who wish to access it.
This model, Ms. Doubleday said, was also built to ensure support for the cultural support workers themselves, as many have self-identified as survivors or descendants of survivors of residential schools.
Ms. Doubleday said Indigenous Services Canada is working with Indigenous communities and stakeholders around what can be provided for aftercare for communities, and what healing services 12 months down the road could look like.
Sol Mamakwa, the NDP MPP for the Kiiwetinoong riding in Northern Ontario, said a healing initiative is needed to provide continuing support following the Pope’s Canadian visit that will have lasting impact in the North.
He is attending the events in Edmonton as a guest of federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, and hopes to hand-deliver a birchbark scroll to Pope Francis with a message from survivors to rescind the doctrine of discovery, which dates back to the 1400s and led European countries to claim jurisdiction and sovereignty over non-Christian nations.
Mr. Mamakwa, who attended a Mennonite institution, said he agreed to go to Alberta because many survivors and intergenerational survivors from the remote North are only now starting to come out and talk about their experiences. Some went to the notorious St. Anne’s Indian Residential School in Fort Albany, Ont., along the James Bay Coast, an institution known for its horrific abuses against Indigenous children including the use of a homemade electric chair. Dozens of survivors from St. Anne’s are set to go to the Quebec City stop of the papal visit.
“We need to be able to provide them a space to be able to talk about that and provide those supports because like they’ve kept it within themselves for a long time,” Mr. Mamakwa said.
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