MASKWACIS, Alberta, Canada — Mavis LongJohn sat with her sister at the top of the arbor bleachers where just moments earlier Pope Francis had offered apologies for the Catholic Church’s role in Canada’s residential school system.
The crowd was dispersing quickly as the Pope’s helicopter disappeared into the overcast sky on its way back to Edmonton.
LongJohn had traveled from Sturgeon Lake First Nation in Saskatchewan to Maskwacis First Nation as part of her own healing journey. She went to the St. Michael’s Indian Residential School in Duck Lake, Saskatchewan, and she carries not only her own story but those of her parents and her late sister.
“I cried,” she told ICT about hearing the Pope’s apology. “I was looking down on the ground because my deceased parents were residential school survivors as well. I had an older sister who passed away in 1996, who is not able to hear what the pope has said. My mom passed away two weeks ago — she was 91 — and she was unable to experience this event, but hopefully she is looking down from the spirit world.”
The Pope’s apology drew applause from the thousands of people gathered Monday at Maskwacis on the site of the former Ermineskin Indian Residential School, but it also drew tears among many in the crowd.
For some, the apology was not enough for the generations lost to the trauma of residential schools, some of whom remain in unmarked graves on school grounds. For others, it was a start toward healing that would begin with forgiveness.
“I am deeply sorry,” the Pope said Monday, in his first visit to Indigenous lands in Canada. "In the face of this deplorable evil, the church kneels before God and implores his forgiveness for the sins of her children."
The Pope also acknowledged that his apology – and his recounting of the harsh conditions and abuse many of the students suffered after being forced from their families to attend school – would stir bad memories.
“The memory of those children is indeed painful,” he said. “We want to walk together, to pray together, to work together, so that the sufferings of the past can lead to a future of justice, healing and reconciliation.”
He continued, “It is necessary to remember how the policies of assimilation … were devastating for the peoples of these lands,” he said, citing the "physical, verbal, psychological and spiritual abuse” of the children.
Wilton Littlechild, a Cree chief who served as grand chief of the Confederacy of the Treaty Six First Nations and who is a residential school survivor, heard testimony from hundreds of survivors while serving as a member of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
For many, he said, the apology mattered.
“This is the been a journey for many Indigenous peoples who wanted to see this day happen, in tears, sometimes in anger, who said to me, ‘I just want to hear three words from the Pope in front of me, ‘I am sorry,” for what happened to me as a child,” Littlechild told ICT.
“I was just following their instructions all these years making sure he made that commitment. And sure enough, here we are.”
‘Pain and remorse’
More than 150,000 Indigenous children in Canada were taken from their families and forced to attend government-funded schools in an effort to isolate them from their families, traditions and language.
The Catholic Church’s missionaries operated more than 60 percent of the 139 residential schools in Canada that received government funds, and more than one-fourth of the more than 400 board schools in the United States. Thousands more attended church-run schools.
The schools were designed to assimilate the children into mainstream society, so their hair was cut, they were beaten for speaking their language, and they often suffered physical or sexual abuse. Many of them died at school, never to return home.
SUPPORT INDIGENOUS JOURNALISM. CONTRIBUTE TODAY.
In 2008, Canada issued a formal apology for its role in operating the residential schools, and formed a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to create a historical record of the history and enduring trauma. The commission’s harshly worded report issued in 2015 concluded the school system amounted to cultural genocide.
The commission was part of the $1.9 billion Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement reached in 2006 between the government and 86,000 Indigenous people who attended the schools as children between 1870 and 1997.
The push for an apology intensified in May 2021 with the discovery of 215 remains of children in unmarked graves around the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia. The finding set off a search for additional graves across Canada and the United States that is ongoing.
The Pope’s apology Monday came after a delegation of survivors, elders, knowledge keepers and youths met with him in April at the Vatican. He made several references in his speech Monday to the meeting, which he said revived his own “deep sense of pain and remorse” over the brutal school system.
It was then he launched six-day “penitential pilgrimage” that will take him to the homelands of Canada’s three Indigenous communities — First Nations, Métis and Inuit.
The long-awaited apology, however, brought renewed calls for reconciliation and reparations for the wrongs that were done.
Three national Indigenous leaders held a news conference after the Pope’s speech to call for maintaining a unified front in dealing with the boarding school history.
“When we were in Rome, we demonstrated that unity and how we can work together on something that has impacted all of our families and communities,” said Métis National Council President Cassiday Caron.
Natan Obed, national president of the Inuit Tapirit Kanatami, was among the estimated 65-70 Inuits who made the journey to Maskwacis.
“I appreciated the remarks for being comprehensive and the sincerity that the remarks were given really resonated with me,” he said. “I hope that others felt that as well. But also, the understanding that this was about taking away our cultures, our languages, ripping families apart, there was a place for that in the speech and the recognition that that happened.”
Assembly of First Nations National Chief RoseAnne Archibald was disappointed the Pope did not renounce the Doctrine of Discovery, which has allowed nations to usurp tribal lands as “discoveries.”
She said she did not hear the apology that she and others had wanted to hear.
“I didn't hear him specifically say that he was apologizing and saying, ‘I'm sorry,’ on behalf of the Catholic Church,” Archibald said. “He talked again about evils committed by Christians, he talked about being out of sync with the teachings of Jesus, but I didn't hear it clearly… I really was hoping that those words would come out, that ‘I am sorry for what the Catholic Church as an institution has done to destroy your communities and your families,’ and I didn't hear that.”
She continued, “I know that this today is about forgiveness for some people and there are people have come with that love and forgiveness in their arms, and there are other people who just don't feel like we quite got there today. I'm one of those people.”
The focus now appears to be shifting to what comes next.
The National Congress of American Indians, a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of tribal governments and communities, issued an open letter to the Pope calling on the church to release records that could help identify the children who attended, including those who died, and make a similar pilgrimage to the United States.
“The Catholic Church holds important records about Federal Indian boarding schools that can help bring the truth to light,” wrote NCAI President Fawn Sharp. “We cannot hold abusers accountable, seek redress for harm or reconcile with the Church, government institutions, and in some cases, our own communities and families, until we know the full, unadulterated truth – truth the Catholic Church is actively withholding. It is crucial we have church support and partnership in working to bring the truth to light.”
Sandi Harper, of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, who attended the papal event in honor of her late mother, a former residential school student, said healing will take time. Some Indigenous people are not yet ready for reconciliation.
"It's something that is needed, not only for people to hear but for the church to be accountable," she said. "We just need to give people the time to heal. It's going to take a long time."
The Pope finished his day greeting followers at the Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples in Edmonton.
This article contains material from The Associated Press.
Our stories are worth telling. Our stories are worth sharing. Our stories are worth your support. Contribute $5 or $10 today to help ICT (formerly Indian Country Today) carry out its critical mission. Sign up for ICT’s free newsletter.