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Dear Pope Francis: A Plea From A Mixed Native Woman

Father Francis,

I was once taught that if you’re going to tell a story, you need to tell it simply. The simplest stories are the easiest to understand. My story is simple. I’m a Chippewa woman from Toronto, Canada. I am the product of colonialism and misguided religion. I stand up now for the thousands of my brothers and sisters who were killed in the Canadian residential school genocide. I’m asking you to hear my plea.

Over 150,000 Native children were snatched from their homes and imprisoned in schools that were run by different religious groups. As you’re no doubt aware, one of those groups was the Catholic Church. I’m not certain of the reasons behind the genocide, besides what it looks like—an attempt to erase my people from existence. I’m certain there were other bureaucratic reasons, but those were lost in the abuse, tears, disease, and murder that spanned over 80 years. The last school was closed in 1996. The effects of what happened have echoed down the generations. They affect us daily. They will never be forgotten.

While some agree that apologies really only benefit the person doing the apologizing, I don’t think that’s all they benefit. Acknowledging wrongdoing is the first step towards being forgiven from sin, as I know you would agree with. I also know that forgiveness begins when two parties attempt to come together to address the hurt. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that we forget. Simply, it means that maybe the rough edges of the hurt are smoothed over time. Simply, it means that the sting and trauma can lessen with amends made by the offending parties.

I don’t know if I believe in God, Father. I was hurt long ago by the Church and it’s taking me awhile to get over it. But I will say this—those from the Church that have reached out to me to apologize have done so because they know it’s the right thing to do. We all have equal worth on this planet. In God’s eyes, we are all his children. The Archbishop of Ottawa believes that it’s too much to ask for you to apologize to my people, some of whom live in appalling conditions; some of whom are so hurt that they turn to drugs and alcohol to ease the pain.

But Jesus taught that all men sin, and all men have the responsibility to their neighbour to treat them as they would wish to be treated. It is, in fact, one of the greatest commandments. I don’t think that you, who champion for the poor, who reach out to the sick and the weak, would feel that this is too much to ask. I ask that you reach out to us on behalf of the Catholic Church that imprisoned and murdered our people. I ask that you see our pain and let God move through you to help to ease it.

I ask it, not because I feel I have the authority to do so, but because in the end, I am your sister as much as I am a sister to my people. And I still have enough faith in the Church that I believe that you will do this – because you know that we are equal in God’s eyes. Because you understand forgiveness.

God bless you.

Elizabeth Hawksworth is a Chippewa writer from Toronto. She has been published in the Huffington Post, Washington Post, and BlogHer. Her blog can be found at ElizabethaHawksworth.com.