WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
More than a dozen residential school survivors from First Nations across the country plan to press Roman Catholic bishops for input on the Pope’s planned stops when he visits Canada in July and the words the pontiff will use in his expected residential school apology on Canadian soil.
The survivors are holding two days of talks in Winnipeg before meeting with Canadian bishops on Wednesday. They hope the meeting will lead to the signing of a new covenant committing the Roman Catholic Church to deeper engagement with First Nations before and after Pope Francis comes to Canada.
“It’s choice time,” said Ted Quewezance, a survivor from Keeseekoose First Nation in Saskatchewan who is co-chairing the meetings.
“The Catholic Church must make a choice of real conciliation for families and communities.”
Quewezance said he is trying to revive the Indian Residential School Survivors Society, which he used to head, to strengthen the voice of survivors ahead of the Pope’s visit.
Pope Francis initially apologized to Indigenous delegates visiting the Vatican on April 1 for the deplorable conduct of some church members in residential schools.
Although Quewezance said he found closure, he wants to make sure the apology the pontiff is expected to deliver in Canada comes with a plan outlining the church’s next steps to work with survivors.
“It has to have substance,” he said.
“Just because there’s an apology, does it stop there? There’s families within our communities that are still hurting today, and it’s painful when you see that.”
Survivors want to be consulted on papal visit
The Pope’s apology at the Vatican did not address the role the church played in running the majority of residential schools in Canada, as called for by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
“He didn’t say that he was sorry that the Catholic Church caused the damage that was done to the survivors of Indian residential schools,” said survivor Kenneth Young, who is organizing the meetings.
“That’s what he should say.”
The locations selected for the papal visit are also a point of contention.
“We’re going to try to convince the Pope to visit Kamloops,” said Young, a former lawyer and Manitoba regional chief with the Assembly of First Nations from Opaskwayak Cree Nation.
What are believed to be more than 200 unmarked graves containing children’s remains were discovered in British Columbia last year by the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc, near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, which was run by the Roman Catholic Church.
Although Pope Francis is personally invited to the community by Kúkpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir, he’s scheduled to visit Edmonton, Quebec City and Iqaluit from July 24 to 29.
Kamloops is “a short hop from Edmonton,” Young said. “The bishops should’ve consulted us.”
Cost of travel an issue for survivors
Regina Archbishop Donald Bolen acknowledged there was a strong request to visit Kamloops, but he thinks the 85-year-old Pope will have to work from three locations due to his health.
Pope Francis has a chronic nerve condition called sciatica, which causes pain from his lower back down to his legs.
“Here in Saskatchewan, it’s not Kamloops that’s the controversy,” said Bolen, who is one of three bishops who committed to meeting survivors.
“It’s that the Pope isn’t coming here…. We’re a little sad about that.”
Quewezance, from Keeseekoose First Nation in Saskatchewan, isn’t sure how many survivors will make it to the Winnipeg talks since some are having trouble securing travel funding from their local dioceses.
He also said not all bishops who were invited accepted the request to attend.
“There’s a little resistance happening by the bishops across the country,” Quewezance said.
Bolen said he’s looked into the issue and believes any survivors who want to go will have their costs covered. He’s paying the travel costs of three survivors from Saskatchewan to attend the Winnipeg talks, including for Quewezance.
“Survivors are presenting an invitation and a challenge to the Canadian Church and to Canadian society as a whole,” Bolen said.
“I encourage others in the church and in society more broadly to take up that invitation to engage personally and directly with survivors.”
Survivors also applied for funding from the federal government, but a spokesperson for the Department of Crown-Indigenous Relations said the request is still being reviewed.
More than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were forced to attend government-funded residential schools operated by the Catholic, Anglican and other churches between the 1870s and 1997.
A chance to ‘turn the corner’ on fractured relationship
In addition to the Pope’s trip, survivors intend to discuss repatriating Indigenous cultural objects from the Vatican, and obtaining residential school documents and land used by the church for residential schools.
Phil Fontaine, one of the first survivors to publicly break his silence about abuse at residential schools, is co-chairing the meetings with Quewezance.
He said he expects the bishops to be as co-operative with survivors as they were leading up to the trip to Rome earlier this spring.
“We actually believe that there’s an opportunity here to turn the corner on the very fractured relationship between our community and the Catholic Church,” said Fontaine, a former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations from Sagkeeng First Nation in Manitoba.
“There’s so much work that has to be undertaken to right the many wrongs that were inflicted on our people and our communities, and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops have a huge responsibility in this regard.”
They also plan to talk about continuing to push the Roman Catholic Church to rescind the Doctrine of Discovery, which would fulfil the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 49th call to action.
It asks all religious and faith groups to repudiate concepts used to justify European sovereignty over Indigenous lands and people.
The Doctrine of Discovery, which is based largely on papal bulls issued in the late 15th century by Pope Nicholas V and Pope Alexander VI, declared lands held by Indigenous Peoples to be terra nullius — Latin for “nobody’s land” — and gave the church’s blessing to explorers’ claims in Africa and the Americas.
The Catholic Church is the first institution the survivors are trying to work with, but they say it won’t be the last.
“Canada has to be a part of the process, the Catholic Church and all the churches,” survivor Kenneth Young said.
Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools or by the latest reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.
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