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Thousands of people sat on camping chairs and blankets outside the Shrine of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, outside of Quebec City, where Pope Francis led mass during his reconciliation pilgrimage in Canada.
As they watched the large screens broadcasting the service, Stevie Hall-Polchies, 20, and Abigail Brooks, 23, watched their nation’s elders and survivors closely, ready to offer support at the first sign of need.
“It’s a very emotional thing to be here. I can’t imagine what our survivors are feeling,” said Brooks, standing on the lawn in a sparkling orange jingle dress and beaded headpiece.
“This is all brand new for them as well, so we’re here to give them the medicine and strength they’ll need to get through today.”
Brooks and Hall-Polchies travelled from Sitansisk Wolastoqiyik — St. Mary’s First Nation in New Brunswick — to care, and dance, for the survivors and elders attending Pope Francis’ events in Quebec.
Hall-Polchies’ grandmother, who was inside the Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré service, was not a residential school survivor, she said, but suffered gravely from systemic racism as a tuberculosis patient at one of Canada’s notorious Indian hospitals. The hospitals — an extension of the residential school system — subjected many patients to abuse, malpractice and painful, outdated or sometimes experimental medical procedures.
“Our people needed us,” said Hall-Polchies of why she’d travelled to Quebec City. She stood next to Brooks in a jingle dress of deep blue and neon green.
“Our seniors, our survivors, everyone here — they needed us for healing. We are here to show that we are still here and that we are still carrying on our traditions.”
Indigenous people of all ages from coast to coast to coast have attended the Pope’s stops in Alberta, Quebec and Nunavut, each for their own deeply personal reasons. Often, it was to support other people — survivors, family members and their communities.
Cameras clicked wildly at Jack Saddleback in Maskwacis, Alta., as he held up a transgender and two-spirit pride flag during the chiefs’ grand entry at the park arbour. Saddleback, a citizen of Samson Cree Nation, said he was there to be a “conduit” for his people.
Two-spirit, Indigiqueer, non-binary and gender-diverse peoples have always existed, he told Global News, and efforts by colonizers and the Catholic Church to eliminate them have failed.
“It’s important for me to stand in that space to be as visible as possible because this is auspicious and this is huge,” he said quietly, as the pontiff read aloud his first apology on Monday.
“This is a moment that we can highlight all of these challenges that have been imparted onto our communities from this malicious use of religion.”
Pope Francis visited Canada to apologize for the “deplorable evil” of the residential school system, run predominantly by the federal government and Catholic Church. The pilgrimage comes six years later than called for by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015, and after multiple invitations from survivors — including during a historic delegation of Indigenous peoples to the Vatican in March.
As hundreds of people packed themselves into the Ermineskin Cree Nation’s Bear Park arbour on Monday, Maria Buffalo of Samson Cree Nation said the Pope’s tour is a “double-edged sword.”
“I feel like it sort of makes a tourist attraction out of trauma and lived experiences, but at the same time, the thing that grounds me the most is thinking of my kookum (grandma) and grandparents,” she said, referencing the nearby Ermineskin Residential School. “This is really about centreing their experiences.”
Asked whether the papal visit brings her hope, Buffalo said she believes the “new generation” finds “affirmation and power” from within their nations, not from outside sources like the Holy See.
“It is at least a step in the right direction to be acknowledged in our pains and be affirmed,” she added, calling it a “minimal step.”
Saddleback said he’s optimistic, “but won’t hold his breath,” as the Catholic Church still “has rampant homophobia, has rampant transphobia, and still indoctrinates many nations with this idea of what it means to be the human experience.” His elders bring him more hope than the Pope, he added.
“When I speak to many of my knowledge keepers and elders on a one-to-one basis, and we can have that understanding about we as people, as nehiyaw — they get it. My grandparents, even thinking about them, you know, they get it. They see me … I am nothing less than anyone else.”
Pope Francis completes his “penitential” tour of Canada on Friday afternoon in Iqaluit, where he is meeting with survivors, elders and community leaders.
His apologies to date, while expressing “deep shame and sorrow” for the role of “different local Catholic institutions” in residential schools, have not acknowledged the Catholic Church’s role as a co-architect and driver of the system. The last residential school in Canada closed in 1996; by that time, more than 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children had been taken.
The Pope has spoken about “projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation” that stripped Indigenous peoples of their culture and languages, and impacted the relationships between grandparents, parents, and children for generations. He has referenced the importance of a “serious investigation” into what took place at residential schools, and to assist survivors with the healing journey, but has not suggested the Church will lead it.
Outside the Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré shrine in sweltering heat, 13-year-old Rubiina and her nine-year-old sister, Luna, stood in the shade of a tree with their mother, Ashley Keays. Rubiina said it’s “good” so many survivors have seen the pontiff this week because some “really need to hear and see” the apology.
She said she would, however, wait to speak to her grandmother before drawing any conclusions about his trip.
“I want to know what she thinks about it because it’s a lot to take in,” said Rubiina, who lives in Ottawa and is a citizen of Biigtigong Nishnaabeg, an Ojibwe First Nation, on the northern shores of Lake Superior.
Her grandmother sat inside the basilica, where a “Rescind the Doctrine of Discovery” banner was unfurled towards the end of the service. It repeated a longstanding call for the pontiff to rescind the 1493 papal decree that enabled and justified the displacement and enslavement of non-Christian peoples on land “discovered” by early European explorers.
Pope Francis has yet to address or acknowledge that call, but the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops has said it’s trying to obtain a new statement on the topic from the Vatican.
Rubiina, meanwhile, said her generation must “keep trying to rebuild” what was destroyed.
“I think mostly keep fighting for what we need, and pass on our traditions and languages,” she said, when asked what responsibility she felt as a First Nations youth and witness to the papal tour.
It’s a sentiment shared by Brooks and Hall-Polchies. Full reconciliation cannot take place until the Vatican returns all Indigenous artifacts and residential school documents in its possession, they said.
“We’re showing our survivors that everything that was ripped from them — it’s up to our generation to carry on, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do for them,” Brooks told Global News.
“We are not going to let our traditions die out. We have more than a responsibility.”
Asked if they had a message to pass on to other Indigenous youth who couldn’t attend the papal tour, Brooks said, “support your elders in any way that you know how.
“Our elders have all taken care of us and now it’s our turn to take care of them.”
The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line (1-800-721-0066) is available 24 hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience.
The Hope for Wellness Help Line offers culturally competent counselling and crisis intervention to all Indigenous Peoples experiencing trauma, distress, strong emotions and painful memories. The line can be reached anytime toll-free at 1-855-242-3310.
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