By Angela Bellegarde, OKN’s Manager of Indigenous Strategy
Angela reflects on the Pope’s recent apology for the Catholic’s Church role in Canada’s Residential School System.
It was a difficult week watching the news coverage of Indigenous representatives meeting with Pope Francis in Rome in March 2022. I looked at Chief Mary Ann Day-Walker, long-term chief at Okanese First Nation located down the road from my First Nation and wondered what she must have been feeling. I saw Chief Phil Fontaine looking like he was shouldering a huge weight. I am old enough to remember the first time Chief Fontaine travelled to meet the Pope. In fact, that week I thought a lot about our Indigenous leaders who have met previously with a sitting Pope. The outstanding Metis Leader, the late Jim Sinclair, met with Pope John Paul II at least four times. Was this time going to be different? If our leaders had hope, acted with dignity, and were in Rome to honour all Residential School Survivors, I must have hope too. We are still here.
Conflicted About my Spirituality, I Took Action
Three generations of my family went to a “Catholic” Residential School. Their traditional spiritual teachings and practices were replaced intentionally by the Catholic nuns and priests who ran the Residential School. I was raised Catholic and until fairly recently experienced a great deal of cognitive dissonance about my spirituality. I now engage in spiritual practices of the Plains Cree people and respect the teachings of all religions. I smudge with traditional medicines, respect the teaching of the elders, and attend sweats when I can. I continue to learn every day the meaning of wisdom, love, respect, courage, honesty, humility, and truth. These are what my Catholic-school-attending children experience in my home. My heart soared when my daughter was confirmed in the Indigenous Saint Kateri Tekawitha’s name. My son wore his traditional ribbon shirt to the mass. The dissonance continues but we are still here, and we have never left.
Adding to the complexity of my feelings is the fact that I had a non-Indigenous uncle who was an Oblate priest. I never really thought of him as a priest though. He dressed like the rest of us, drank beer on a cold day, and had strong opinions about the Bishop and the powers that be in Rome. Father Paulo worked in community development in the jungles of Brazil. We referred to him as “my uncle the priest in Brazil,” but I learned from Brazilian expats that he was also known as the “rebel priest”. He worked tirelessly to organize Indigenous farmers to protest the appropriation of land by the Brazilian government for foreign multi-nationals to develop. This is somewhat ironic, given that it has taken over 25 years for my First Nation to settle our land claim with the Canadian government. We are still here; we have never left.
One Step in the Journey toward Indigenous Truth
The morning of the apology, I watched Chief Phil Fontaine hold a press conference in St. Peter’s Square. I couldn’t help but think that three generations of my family have visited that square, my grandmother to see my uncle ordained and me as a tourist many years later. In fact, I was lucky enough to see Pope John Paul II make a rare appearance at his balcony. Six days later, on April 2nd, 2005, he passed away. Prior to my departure from Italy, I went back to St. Peter’s Square for evening prayers, where Pope John Paul II body laid. A historical moment to be sure.
April 1 was another historical day. The day of the Pope’s apology was one of surrealness and joy. I wanted the apology to happen for the Residential School survivors, and our Indigenous leaders who fought so hard for it. I was relieved to see Chief Fontaine respond to questions with a levity I hadn’t seen all week. In fact, I teared up with emotion thinking about the power that the apology holds for Indigenous people. The Pope’s apology is an important step in healing and redressing the wrongs of the past. It recognizes the “Truth” that we must all learn and face as Canadians; only then will meaningful Reconciliation occur in this country. It is an apology that recognizes that we were always here, we never left, and we will not leave.
Hiy Hiy, Angela.
If you are a Survivor and need emotional support, a national crisis line is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week:
Residential School Survivor Support Line: 1-866-925-4419
Read Pope Francis’s full remarks, apology for abuses by some Catholic Church members in residential schools | CBC News
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