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Members of the Assembly of First Nations perform in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on March 31.Alessandra Tarantino/The Associated Press

Charlotte Manuel rose at dawn on Friday at her home on the Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc First Nation, in British Columbia, to watch Pope Francis apologize in person to nearly 200 Indigenous leaders for the role Catholics played in the tragedy of Canada’s residential school system.

The 80-year-old survivor of the Kamloops Residential School said she appreciated the significance of the first-ever public papal apology of this sort, but that she was especially proud of her chief and the other Indigenous delegates, who had spent the past week at the Vatican meeting with the Pope and other Catholic officials. She credited the group from Canada with having maintained dignity and respect throughout the historic moment.

“I really prayed hard that our people wouldn’t be disappointed in going over there and not receiving an apology,” said Ms. Manuel, whose five children were baptized at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, a two-storey wood building just down the road from her home. “I really wanted them to feel that they were successful in delivering the message to him so that they could come back and prepare themselves and their people to move on.”

Ms. Manuel left the church when she felt shunned after a divorce decades ago, and has since embraced the spiritual practices of her nation. When she went on Facebook later on Friday, she said, she saw reactions to the apology that were decidedly more negative than her own. Like communities across Canada, hers holds many different opinions on the Pope’s words.

Less than a year ago, the Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc First Nation touched off a period of intense national mourning and historical interrogation when it announced that a search with ground-penetrating radar had turned up evidence of more than 200 unmarked graves near the former Kamloops Residential School, just across the river from Kamloops, B.C. Days after that announcement, someone spray-painted the words “crime scene,” “evicted” and other graffiti on the exterior of St. Joseph’s church.

The detection of hundreds more burials at other former residential school sites, also with ground-penetrating radar, jumpstarted public and political pressure on the Catholic Church to atone for its role and honour its past commitments to reparations. This past week’s visit to Rome – during which Inuit, Métis and First Nations delegations met separately and collectively with the Pope over several days – was a direct result of that attention.

The Catholic Church ran about 60 per cent of Canada’s residential schools from the late 1800s until the late 1960s and 70s, when the Department of Indian Affairs took control of daily operations at many schools. More than 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend the schools, often far from home. Many were inadequately fed and clothed, and it wasn’t unusual for them to be physically or sexually abused by staff members.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that more than 4,000 children died in the institutions. It said the residential school system amounted to cultural genocide.

Gene Gottfriedson was baptized at St. Joseph’s, and said he is excited that his granddaughter will soon be baptized there as well.

But the 58-year-old former altar boy, whose mother survived six years at the Kamloops Residential School, said the Pope’s apology is unlikely to do much to heal the divide in his community between those who still believe in the institution and those who want to sever all links.

“His words may be what some want to hear, but there are no repercussions for what happened,” he said. “No money in the world can take the pain and bad memories from the people who had these issues.”

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