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Residential school survivors want concrete plan to result from Vatican visit

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

Some residential school survivors have little hope that anything meaningful for them will happen when Indigenous groups from Canada visit the Pope in mid-December.

“I want the Pope to give me a plan. What are you going to do with all those people that [did] these things to these little kids?” said Dakota elder Wanbdi Wakita.

Wakita, from Sioux Valley Dakota Nation about 240 kilometres west of Winnipeg, attended two residential schools in Manitoba for a total of eight years, and suffered through abuse throughout his stay.

In two weeks, delegates from First Nations, Métis and Inuit organizations will get an opportunity to meet with Pope Francis at the Vatican, with each group getting one hour each.

Some residential school survivors, like Wakita, aren’t interested in a meeting with the Pope or getting an apology from him, and would rather see abusers from the church put in jail.

“Here’s all the wrongs, how are you going to right those wrongs? Put it on a piece of paper and sign it,” said Wakita.

“I would like to see … something really clear, something really visible, something that’s going to impact me.”

Mi’kmaw Elder Dorene Bernard said she is happy for the Indigenous Catholics who will be watching the event, but also wants action.

“There’s a lot to atone for,” said Bernard, who is from Sipekne’katik First Nation, about 30 kilometres north of Halifax, and spent four years at nearby Shubenacadie Indian Residential School.

In the past, both Pope Benedict and Pope Francis have expressed “sorrow” for the abuse that occurred in residential schools, but stopped short of apologizing to survivors in Canada.

“The church is probably weighing in on all the things that they need to be sorry for, and ‘sorrowful’ is not going to cut it. We’re sorrowful, too,” said Bernard.

residential school survivors want concrete plan to result from vatican visit
Dorene Bernard says she would like to see the Doctrine of Discovery repudiated. (Marian Nicholas)

If there is an eventual apology, Bernard said she would like to see the Pope repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, a concept used to justify European sovereignty over Indigenous lands and peoples, and would like to see a commitment to help rebuild what was taken from Indigenous people who attended the schools.

“Help us to rebuild, to revitalize our languages and revitalize our culture and traditions and our spirituality that protects the land and the water and all our people and all life, all the things that were taken away with Christianity coming to our shores,” said Bernard.

She said she plans on praying for all of the people who will be attending the meetings with the Pope.

Little faith in reconciliation 

Karen Chaboyer is from Rainy River First Nations and attended St. Margaret’s Indian Residential School in Fort Frances, Ont., from 1957 to 1966.

residential school survivors want concrete plan to result from vatican visit 1
Karen Chaboyer says she doesn’t believe she will see reconciliation in her lifetime. (Rhiannon Johnson/CBC)

She said she has given up hope that something impactful will come from the upcoming visit with the Pope, and doubts reconciliation will happen in her lifetime.

“I don’t see any reconciliation, not at my age,” said Chaboyer.

“There’s just too much going on, still going on.”

  • Do you know of a child who never came home from residential school? Or someone who worked at one? We would like to hear from you. Email our Indigenous-led team investigating the impacts of residential schools at wherearethey@cbc.ca or call toll-free: 1-833-824-0800.

Eddy Charlie, a member of the Cowichan Nation in B.C., would like for the Pope to hear directly from residential school survivors about the abuses they faced.

Charlie attended Kuper Island residential school on what is now Penelakut Island and was sexually abused by staff during his two-and-a-half-year stay.

residential school survivors want concrete plan to result from vatican visit 2
Eddy Charlie is a member of the Cowichan Nation and a survivor of the Kuper Island Residential School off the east coast of Vancouver Island. (Ken Mizokoshi/CBC)

While he would like to see an apology at some point, he said time is running out.

“The longer the Vatican is silent about the harms that residential school caused in Indigenous families and communities, the more complicit he’s making the Vatican and the churches in the crimes committed against 150,000 children in residential schools,” he said.

The meetings with the Pope are scheduled to happen Dec. 20.

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered 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.

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