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Dear Mom, the Pope is in Canada to meet residential school survivors

This First Person article is by Vivian Ketchum who often writes letters to her late mother to process her feelings. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

WARNING: This column contains distressing details.

Dear Mom, 

I have some strange news to share with you. 

The Pope is in Canada this month. He is visiting some Indigenous communities in Canada. Not sure how I feel about his visit. I think of the words you shared of your time in residential school, at St. Mary’s Indian School in Kenora, Ont. A Catholic-run school. 

How the nun cut your long black hair. It was part of you and your identity. You told me, “They made me look like a boy.” I saw the tears in your eyes. The memory still so fresh in your memory even after so many years. Your story, as brief as it was, still angers me. The attempt to erase your Indigenous identity. To try to Christianize you.

Your words and my own personal residential school past don’t have me looking forward to the Pope’s visit. People say not to hang on to the past. To let go of it. Mom, how can I let go of the past when it shaped my life? Residential schools have been part of my past and your life. 

A younger woman puts her arm around another woman.
Vivian Ketchum, left, and her mother both attended residential schools. In this photo snapped in the 1990s, Ketchum was blaring music and her mother plugged her ears with tissues. (Submitted by Vivian Ketchum)

One of my earlier memories was kissing the rosary that you held in your hand. Later in your life, you become a Christian. You had your Bible and your faith. You shared your religion with your children. I struggled to accept your faith when I had so much anger towards the church. Any church. 

I hated what happened to me in residential school. The physical and emotional abuse. The unwanted touching that made me feel horrible. Even now I am not strong enough to put that experience into words. I wanted what I had lost as a child. I also wanted my mom. The mom I missed so much in residential school. 

Years later, I too became a Christian. I wasn’t into the tent meetings you took me to, with people singing loudly, to show me your new church life. But I saw the change within you after you sobered up and how your faith helped you. There were no more scary situations like loud parties in the house. So I accepted your faith and made it my own. 

A smudge bowl is placed on top of a Bible.
Vivian Ketchum uses both her Bible and a smudge bowl when she prays. (Vivian Ketchum)

I wanted to keep my part of our Anishinaabe ways. To discover that part of me that was stolen in residential school. So I smudge. I also pray with my hands. No rosary. Mine is not that type of faith. Ribbon skirts, not church dresses. 

Today, my Bible rests next to my smudge bowl and Indigenous medicines. It’s part of my healing journey.

Mom, I walk in two worlds with my faith. I am trying to find my way in these seemingly incompatible worlds. I don’t want my hair cut and lose my identity for my Christianity — if I could use that as a metaphor to express the path I created for myself.

Mom, the Pope’s visit is waking up old memories for residential school survivors. Triggering them. Awakening those buried traumas. It is also creating a divide between those of Christian faith and Indigenous spirituality. To forgive or not to forgive. To heal and move on. Reconciliation. To kiss those rosary beads. 

Your words have coloured my perspective of the Pope’s visit. Would his words of “I am sorry” lift that anger? Will the Pope’s words help me forgive the Catholic Church for what was done to you? I am still carrying that anger within me. Even with my Bible and smudge bowl way of life. 

dear mom the pope is in canada to meet residential school survivors 2
Pope Francis is shown with the chiefs of the four First Nations of Maskwacis, Alta., before he offered an apology on July 25 for the Roman Catholic Church’s involvement in residential schools. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

People are in a proper frenzy over this visit. The Pope is coming to our home grounds, but it won’t be a tea and bannock visit. I remember how you’d make fresh bannock and tea when friends dropped in and surprised us. It won’t be that type of visit. Did I tell you that some of the First Nation communities are even going to be paved over so the Pope can have a smooth ride into the community. I can almost see your eyes roll in my mind. A lighter side of the story to this Pope’s visit. 

Mom, when I read this letter to you, it is so full of personal conflicts that are within me. Faith. Forgiveness. To heal or not to heal. Then I think of your story of your cut hair. The image of a nun with a pair of scissors. The tears in your eyes.

Those are my final thoughts that come to mind when I think of the Pope’s visit. 

It is not enough. It is not enough.

— Danis (Daughter)

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools or by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

Mental health counselling and crisis support is also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat at

Do you have a compelling personal story that can bring understanding or help others? We want to hear from you. Here’s more info on how to pitch to us.

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