MASKWACIS, Alberta — The words “I am sorry” are powerful.
For Tammy Ward of the Samson First Nation, those words from Pope Francis brought tears as she listened on the Muskwa, or Bear Park, Powwow Grounds.
“It’s just very powerful,” Ward told Toronto-based newspaper The Catholic Register after Pope Francis finished delivering on Indigenous land his historic apology for the Catholic Church’s role in residential schools and other wrongs done on the church’s behalf. “For me, it’s the healing,” she said.
Ward leaned into her 21-year-old daughter, Aleea Foureyes, for comfort as Pope Francis confessed the sins Catholics committed against Indigenous Canadians in residential schools.
“In the face of this deplorable evil, the church kneels before God and implores His forgiveness for the sins of her children,” Pope Francis said, invoking St. John Paul II’s 1998 bull, Incarnationis Mysterium (The Mystery of the Incarnation). “I myself wish to reaffirm this, with shame and unambiguously. I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples.”
Pope Francis delivered his apology on the treaty land of the Ermineskin and Samson Cree Nations, the Louis Bull Tribe and the Montana First Nation, as part of his “penitential pilgrimage” to Canada. The site was near one of Canada’s largest residential schools.
Residential schools have long-lasting consequences
For 49-year-old Ward, it brought memories of her relationship with her parents.
“I always thought my parents didn’t love me. I was always wondering why they were silent,” she said.
Years later she understood how a childhood spent institutionalized in residential schools had left her parents unprepared for family life.
It was a day full of emotion as Indigenous people responded to Pope Francis’ presence among them.
Ted Quewezance, an elder from the Keeseekoose First Nation in Saskatchewan, had overseen a search via ground-penetrating radar that uncovered 42 possible unmarked graves near the Fort Pelly residential school and another 12 at St. Philips residential school. He spoke to the crowd of about 5,000 about the long process of reconciliation.
“The pope’s apology is not asking for instant trust,” Quewezance said. “Today I am willing to extend my hand to the pope and to the bishops.”
Indigenous seek action as well as words
But Quewezance warned about the politicization and bureaucratization of reconciliation efforts by governments and churches.
“Reconciliation in Canada is all about recommendations, reports. It’s not about action,” he said.
Quewezance prefers to replace the word reconciliation with “real-conciliation.”
“Reconciliation implies there is a time we would like to go back to,” he said.
Jonathan Buffalo didn’t just come to hear Pope Francis; he came to dance. Indigenous dance, he said, is a path to healing.
“I dance with pride and honor. I dance for my people, my ancestors, my elders,” said the young administrative assistant at the Samson Cree Community Wellness Centre.
Buffalo said he hopes non-Indigenous Catholics hear what the pope has said and read the government’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission report to learn the truth about residential schools.
Walking together in hope amid intergenerational trauma
“It has to be talked about for people to understand (intergenerational trauma),” said Buffalo, whose mother is a residential school survivor.
Showing up to hear Pope Francis apologize was an act of hope for 78-year-old Norman Meade, who brought his 8-year-old granddaughter, Everlee Meade, with him to Maskwacis.
“I do have hope. I always have hope,” Meade said. “When we walk together — the pope is leading us that way — things are better.”
Meade is working on a claim file for his wife, Thelma Meade, seeking compensation for her years in a Presbyterian-run residential school in Birtle, Manitoba. He said getting records from government offices has proved to be a painfully slow process.
Swan is associate editor of The Catholic Register, Toronto.