You cannot just say you are sorry and walk away.
There has to be effort and meaningful action.
That is what we understand, said Chief Tony Alexis of Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation after listening to Pope Francis speak at the beginning of his penitential pilgrimage.
You have to sit with an apology. Let it sink in, roll the words over again and again in your mind. Consider if you will listen or not. Accept it or not.
Pope Francis came here to Maskwacis, a community of four First Nations – Samson Cree, Ermineskin, Montana and Louis Bull – on a day full of rain, cold, blustering wind and angry clouds. The weather fit the mood, the spirits were letting us know, they are here, those lost will not be forgotten.
Our Peoples came here today, from coast to coast to coast. Many came with a heaviness in their hearts – not sure if they truly wanted to be here or not – but they came looking for some solace, from the man in white cloaks. The man who represents the Catholic Church, the one that took away our children’s childhoods – their joy, the light in their eyes along with their hair, language and their teddy bears.
“He sent wooden sticks
with a dead man to hang
around my neck,” wrote Louise Bernice Halfe, the parliamentary poet laureate, from Saddle Lake, Alta., a survivor of the residential school at Blue Quills, in a poem entitled So Sorry.
Pope Francis was able to give the long-awaited apology, speaking in his language, but most of us do not have that ability any more. Our language is a whisper in our minds, familiar but at the same time, foreign.
And it was an apology that left us wanting. Yes, it was heartfelt, meaningful and historic – the first time a pontiff had come to a First Nation to apologize, on our soil. The first time he, or any pope, has toured unmarked graves, a look of deep sorrow on his face. But can he understand, can he truly, if he has not lived it?
The words he uttered, in the Maskwacis powwow arbour – which was noticeably not at capacity, empty seats visible in patches – left us wanting more. “I ask forgiveness, in particular, for the ways in which many members of the church and of religious communities co-operated … in projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation promoted by the governments of that time, which culminated in the system of residential schools.”
Again, as in the April 1 apology to the Indigenous delegates in Rome, he did not apologize for ALL of the Catholic Church, only the few; nor for their Doctrines of Discovery, which allowed papal bulls based in racial superiority and greed to continue to rule the day. Yes, we hoped he would rescind the doctrines – but we knew in our hearts he would not. We know this church too well. If they were to have done so, they would have rocked Turtle Island to its core. Maps redrawn. Damning restitution made. But they cannot afford the truth.
St. Anne’s Indian Residential School survivor Evelyn Korkmaz waited 50 years to hear an apology. She has dogged the church, demanding they own up to the devastating physical, sexual and spiritual abuse they brought on innocent children like her. “I am glad I lived long enough to hear this apology. … I have been fighting for 10 years in the courtrooms of Canada and we have not gotten justice.”
Pope Francis did not mention the documents the Oblates hold, which contain information where our lost souls are buried; she says, ” … those documents need to be released, they belong here in Canada, this is our history, they don’t belong in Rome.”
Yet we cried at this apology. We cried as we watched former chief Marie-Anne Day Walker-Pelletier from Okanese First Nation have returned to her the pair of moccasins that she gave the Pope on loan when she went as part of the Indigenous delegation to seek this apology in the first place.
And we cried when we saw Honorary Chief Wilton Littlechild, one of the three Truth and Reconciliation Commissioners, unsteadily walk up the stage and place a headdress, First Nations’ highest honour, on the pontiff’s surprised head. Chief Littlechild himself heard nearly 7,000 survivors speak their truths at the TRC. Indigenous Peoples were stunned with this gift, some insulted, but all moved by the continued grace of our Peoples. Pope Francis came to apologize for a genocide – yet he did not say the word – and we gave him a headdress anyway.
Our love knows no bounds.
Cree comedian Don Burnstick posted on social media that when the Pope says he is sorry, he urged us to heal and cry for our parents, for all the times they couldn’t cry in the schools.
We cry for our parents, our grandparents, our great-grandparents.
As I listened to the papal apology, I held in my hands a copy of the TRC’s fourth volume, Canada’s Residential Schools: Missing Children and Unmarked Burials. In Canada’s history, it is the very first systemic effort to document, record and examine the deaths of our children. The Pope spoke of a “serious investigation of the facts” of the residential schools. We have done that. Chief Littlechild did. It is called the TRC.
That same sense of nothingness, of deep numbness I came to Maskwacis with, has not left me.
Apologies will never reach our countless lost and dead children. Those who suffered at the hands of their Catholic perpetrators, and, those who then suffered at home, in their own personal hell brought on them by survivors who took their anguish out on those they loved the most.
They will not reach the tens of thousands of our children who have taken their lives with their own hands because the weight of history – one they did not ask to be born into – was too much.
But we, as First Nations Peoples, know deep down, that it is not the Christian Church that will save us. Some may choose to walk with us, but, we will save ourselves, by turning to our families, our communities and rediscovering the spirituality that has sustained us since time began.
What saves us is learning our languages, our ceremonies. In order for us to heal, we must turn to each other – we will not get absolution and peace from a man in white.
You cannot erase what is deep inside.
We are still here.
All my relations.
The Globe and Mail
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