Alberta residential school survivor calls on Pope Francis to apologize during visit to Canada
Members of Alberta’s Indigenous community say Pope Francis should immediately apologize for the Catholic Church’s role in the residential school system upon his announcement that he is willing to visit Canada.
Lena Wildman, a residential school survivor, was taken from her family at four years old. She said she was camping with her family on the east end of the Stoney Chiniki First Nation in 1965 when authorities arrived.
She was enrolled in the Morley Indian Residential School, located about 50 kilometres west of Calgary, where she experienced some of the most traumatic moments of her life.
“I remember being punished, being strapped by an adult, being held by my hair and dragged up or down a whole set of stairs with my body banging on every step just because I spoke my native language,” Wildman said.
“There was a lot of damage so it’s really important to have an apology because it validates what happened. When there is no apology, it’s like you're denying anything happened and you're just walking away, thinking it will go away.”
Wildman says the pain of her childhood will never go away and the impacts of being bullied as a child and suffering through the residential school system affected her ability to parent and properly fit into society as she grew up.
An itinerary or date for Pope Francis’ tour has not yet been released, but it is expected to happen after a December meeting at the Vatican with First Nations, Metis and Inuit leaders.
In a statement, the Vatican said the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops invited the Pope to travel to Canada in the “context of the long-standing pastoral process of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.”
A papal apology was one of 94 recommendations made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015.
Adam North Peigan, president of the 60s Scoop Indigenous Society of Alberta, agrees that an apology is much needed, especially with the confirmation of unmarked graves at sites of former residential schools.
He adds that thousands of children have died in Canada’s residential school system and the injustices against them cannot be ignored.
“What we're looking for is an apology from the Pope, because that would bring reconciliation, full circle, for the Indigenous people,” North Peigan said.
“But Canada has to do some work with reconciliation too, with the compensation for the residential school survivors, the Truth and Reconciliation commission report and its 94 calls to action.”
An estimated 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend residential schools over the course of a century, with more than 60 per cent of the schools run by the Catholic Church.
Earlier this summer, several Calgary churches including the Grace Presbyterian Church were painted in red hand prints in an effort to raise awareness of the atrocities against young Indigenous children.
Rev. Jake Van Pernis with Grace Presbyterian says his church has decided to keep the red paint on its doors so as not to wash away the past, but instead to build strong relationships for the future.
“Leaving the paint up on the doors has come with both joys and challenges, but we’re continuing to have this conversation and it’s a reminder that we need to sit with that uncomfortably and recognize this history,” he said.
“We need to continue to talk about this and continue to be in relationship with Indigenous people and grow together so that reconciliation can happen, because without the truth, there is no reconciliation.”
APOLOGY IS 'TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE'
While some members of Alberta’s Indigenous community are demanding an apology from Pope Francis, others are disgusted by the idea he is even planning to visit Canada at all.
Melanie Fiddler, a Calgary-based Indigenous advocate, says she wants action instead of more lip service.
“We are beyond the apology stage because they've been giving apologies and instead we need healing for our people. We need a changed life. A lot of our children have been missing and we're still traumatized when the children are still going through this with child and family services,” Fiddler said.
“So at this stage, we want our land back. We don't want those priests getting more, we don't want lip service anymore. We want action and until charges are laid for what they’ve done we're not accepting any type of verbal apology.”
Other local advocates like Nicole Johnston agree.
“I think the Pope is wasting his time,” she said. “I believe we need more action than words – we need justice.”
Despite the frustration, Pope Francis is still planning to visit, but there is no indication that an apology for residential schools would be guaranteed during the visit.
Marc Miller, minister of Crown-Indigenous relations, said a recognition of the church’s role in the schools is important to Indigenous peoples.
“That full recognition of harms caused is something that’s long waited for from the Holy Father himself,” Miller said.
However, other federal leaders like Jagmeet Singh said an apology alone won’t be good enough.
“The Catholic Church also is responsible for compensation and should provide that compensation to survivors,” said Singh, who added that the church must also provide all documents it has related to the schools.
(With files from the Canadian Press)