Pope’s Residential School apology draws mixed reaction around Turtle Island

Pope Francis apologized to the Indigenous peoples of Canada this week for the evil and atrocities committed against their children through the Catholic-run residential school system.

“I am deeply sorry — sorry for the ways in which, regrettably, many Christians supported the colonizing mentality of the powers that oppressed the Indigenous peoples,” the Pope said, according to the Washington Post. “It is painful to think of how the firm soil of values, language and culture that made up the authentic identity of your peoples was eroded, and that you have continued to pay the price of this,” Francis said, in his native Spanish.

Some in Indian Country accepted the apology. Some saw it as long overdue. Others felt it was a good step, but lacked specificity. Still others are waiting to see if the Pope’s words would be followed by concrete actions.

This was the Pope’s first visit to Canada, which was described as a “penitential pilgrimage” through the territories of three Indigenous peoples – First Nations, Métis and Inuit, Indian Country Today reported.

He spoke to several thousand boarding school survivors in Maskwacis, Alberta, who greeted his apology with applause.

More than 150,000 Indigenous children in Canada were forced to attend residential schools from the 19th century until the 1970s. Indigenous children were taken from their families and communities. They were punished for speaking their native languages and practicing their cultural ways. They were subject to extreme emotional, sexual, and/or physical abuse.

A review of news stories and social media reflect varied responses from Indigenous peoples to the Pope’s apology.

In an email sent by the U.S.-based National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (NABS), President Sandy White Hawk (Sicangu Lakota) said: “If the Pope is interested in walking with Indigenous people impacted by the violence of Indian residential and boarding schools, accountability needs to be front and center. Including releasing boarding school records from all Catholic repositories from Canada and the US, all the way to the Vatican.”

Ruth Roulette, a residential school survivor from Manitoba, said she believed the Pope was sincere, according to a Reuters story, but his speech lacked important acknowledgements.

“When he talks about the atrocities that the churches did on our people, he didn’t use the word ‘sexual abuse.’ … That’s what happened. It happened. And why did he not say that?”

‘Kneel down the way you made us. Kneel down as little kids and ask for that forgiveness,’

Victoria McIntosh, Residential School survivor

Former Assembly of First Nations Chief Phil Fontaine, who attended two Manitoba residential schools, said: “Pope Francis’s words today and in Rome this spring represent a journey that has taken more than 180 years — from the time the doors of these so-called schools opened to the challenges First Nations people live today,” Canada’s National Observer reported. “By apologizing for the abuses of the past, Pope Francis has helped to open the door for survivors and their families to walk together with the church for a present and future of forgiveness and healing. I accept and choose this path.”

Victoria McIntosh attended Fort Alexander residential school in the 1960s and said she was sexually assaulted for years by a priest, CNN reported. She feels no forgiveness towards the Catholic Church.

“’Kneel down the way you made us. Kneel down as little kids and ask for that forgiveness,’ McIntosh said of the Pope.

Helen Charlie, 63, a residential school survivor, flew in from Whitehorse, Yukon to attend the event, the Washington Post reported. She “said that though the pope didn’t apologize for the broader church, he did apologize in personal terms that she found moving. ‘It was like he took the blame for everything,’ she said after the event, as she moved toward the stage, hoping to meet him. She said she wanted to touch the pope’s shirt, take him close and ask him to pray for the many people she knew who died young — including from alcoholism that she attributed in part to residential school experiences.”

“I cried while he talked,” Charlie said.

After giving his apology, the Pope was gifted a traditional headdress by Chief Wilton Littlechild, Native News Online reported. It drew cheers from the boarding school survivors in attendance, the Washington Post said.

It also drew strong responses around Indian Country.

Christian Big Eagle tweeted: “Logging off. As an Indigenous person I’m triggered by all the news about the Pope. I saw someone give him a headdress and it just made [me] so angry. A headdress has to be earned. The Pope is head of an organization that raped and murdered Indigenous children.”

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