Over 16 days, Fort McMurray’s Adam McDonald walked around 800 kilometres in the hot sun to get to Lac St. Anne, Alta. He wanted to be in the shrine there to hear what Pope Francis had to say.
While he walked, he carried a large flag attached to a wood staff to honour the unmarked graves at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, and the murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls – both horrific tragedies that emerged from Catholic Church doctrine and Canadian government policies such as the Indian Act, which were themselves born of a sense of racial superiority.
But these specific realities caused by the Church and Canada have been completely left out of Pope Francis’s historic apology to First Nations, Inuit and Métis. The graves have not been directly addressed – nor has any acknowledgment in the church’s role in rampant institutional sexual abuse.
Indeed, despite his claimed “deep shame and sorrow,” Pope Francis’s words have felt hard to trust. In fact, even though he said that the church would “conduct a serious investigation into the facts of what took place in the past,” according to a Vatican translation of his Spanish speech into English, the Vatican now says that the word “investigation” was “lost in translation” and that he meant “search.”
So while there might be humanity in Pope Francis’s words, it was parsed with a “very particular language that left out some very big things, especially the consideration for sexual abuse,” Natan Obed, the leader of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami – the political organization that represents 65,000 Inuit across Nunangat – told me. “I don’t recall him ever touching on the subject that has plagued this institution and the residential school system.”
A delegation of Inuit survivors attended the events in Maskwacis, Alta., Edmonton and Lac St. Anne. They came to offer support and to listen, even though they are often dwarfed by the more populous communities of First Nations and Métis survivors and their families. But all Indigenous survivors of sexual abuse were united in watching the Pope, either in person or on their television screens. They heard only scant references of what the “deplorable system” did to destroy generations of families, and general references to children suffering “physical, verbal, psychological and spiritual abuse”. There was nothing specific to acknowledge that alleged perpetrators of sexual assault in Canada, such as Johannes Rivoire, were living today in countries sheltered from justice; he did not mention the Grollier Hall residential school in Inuvik, N.W.T., of which four supervisors have been convicted of sexual abuse of youth from 1958 to 1979.
Instead, on Wednesday, survivors listened to sermons and a homily in Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium that spoke of the importance of grandparents – in stunning ignorance of the fact that many of those grandparents barely lived through residential school.
It was a visit that was supposed to be a “penitential pilgrimage,” but many times it felt like a mission. Those are very different things.
Mr. Obed has been surprised by the amount of proselytizing done through the events. “I did not expect that a condition of hearing an apology would mean that I would be, and everyone listening, subject to a sermon – a Catholic, spiritual event,” he says.
“I recognize that this is the Pope and he is a holy person … I may have been naive to think that the institution could come here and apologize in the fullest capacity it possibly can, without the accompanying religious element that ultimately is at odds with the very purpose of the visit.”
Mr. Obed is determined for better when the Papal entourage lands in Iqaluit, where the Pope will be for just under three hours. But if better is not achieved, he will have felt like this was one colossal opportunity lost, and that Indigenous communities’ tender trust in leadership broadly will have been irrevocably eroded.
Mr. Obed’s own father, Enoch Obed, was taken into St. Anthony Orphanage and Boarding School in Newfoundland, from the age of 9 to 18. Enoch’s family was relocated from the northern part of Labrador, and shortly afterward, his mother passed away from food poisoning. His father died while Enoch was at residential school; he wasn’t notified for months.
St. Anthony’s was not a Catholic residential school, Mr. Obed says, “but the solidarity we have as intergenerational survivors remains central to the ability for us to work on these issues together.”
He is speaking of himself, yes. But he also speaks of the solidarity among Indigenous leaders as well as the Government of Canada, who all no doubt hope the Pope’s apology can be a meaningful step toward elusive reconciliation. If the Pope leaves this undone, it will not only be survivors who suffer – it will be all of Canada.
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