New Brunswick survivors of residential school shared mixed reaction to an apology they witnessed Pope Francis offer Thursday for the Catholic Church’s role in the residential school system.
Vaughan Nicholas of Tobique First Nation was sent to Shubenacadie Residential School as a child, and this week, along with other survivors from New Brunswick, travelled to Quebec City to hear the Pope’s apology.
He said the Thursday morning mass at Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré Basilica was “beautiful,” but felt the apology from Francis fell short of admitting the church’s institutional role.
“He’s saying it was these bad people that were in there in the residential schools, what they did to our kids,” Nicholas said.
“And to me, they were following orders from the church, implementing the policies of the government to take the Indian out of the child, and they did that.”
The mass was part of Francis’s week-long tour in Canada aimed at reconciliation with residential school survivors.
During mass, Francis reflected on how the faithful can at times feel a “sense of failure” for actions of the past, specifically related to Indigenous people in Canada.
Nicholas, 75, said he was also present for the Pope’s appearance at the Quebec City Citadel on Wednesday but didn’t feel the connection he’d hoped for.
“I just couldn’t grasp it. And I wanted to actually feel the emotions, have a certain feeling and to connect to it and I didn’t.”
‘Some closure’ in apology
Ivan Paul of Metepenagiag Miꞌkmaq Nation, who was also at the mass held at the basilica, said he felt better after hearing the Pope’s remorseful remarks.
The 64-year-old was sent to Shubenacadie for two years until the institution was closed in 1967.
“Personally for me myself, there is some closure because [Francis] mentioned that he was really sorry for what has been done to the Indigenous people, and I think Canada as a whole itself should be more understanding of what has been done to the Indigenous people,” Paul said.
“We weren’t the ones who were the wrong-doers … it was them, and I think Canada should understand.”
Paul also met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and former prime ministers Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin.
Aside from the apology, he said, it was also healing to be able to reconnect with other residential school survivors from across the country whom he hadn’t seen in years.
“Because since Covid, nobody had seen each other in a long time, and I think this was a very good journey in that sense to come together as residential school survivors.”
Imelda Perley of Sitansisk First Nation in Fredericton travelled to Quebec City to serve as a cultural and spiritual supporter for the survivors, and said they showed remarkable strength on Thursday.
“I witnessed so much courage in the group that I came with because of all the things they talked about that have happened to them at residential school,” she said.
“And I have one survivor that never thought she’d be going to a church let alone hearing from the Pope.”
Perley said she and the rest of the group will be travelling back to New Brunswick on Friday morning.
Nicholas, however, will be staying in Quebec City for a few more days and has plans to personally meet with the Pope on Friday.
“I’m gonna tell him what the church did and the government did, and what they did to us in that school,” he said.
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 www.hopeforwellness.ca.
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