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Kingsclear First Nation Elder Brian Solomon considers himself “one of the lucky ones.”
Growing up in New Brunswick, he said he saw other kids being ripped from their families to go to residential school. His family, however, moved in the 1960s and he was sent to a day school instead.
“We still got our straps, you know, our knuckles cracked,” Solomon recalled, sitting in a Quebec City hotel lounge with residential school survivors from New Brunswick.
He commended the “brave” survivors around him who shared their experiences at the notorious Shubenacadie Indian Residential School in Nova Scotia. It broke his heart, he added, to hear the abuse they suffered at the hands of the Catholic priests and nuns who ran it.
“I grew up Christian. That’s all I ever knew,” Solomon said Wednesday.
Pope Francis concluded his six-day “penitential” pilgrimage in Canada on Friday, a tour aimed at renewing the Catholic Church’s relationship with Indigenous Peoples and atoning for its role in a system that tried to erase their language, culture and spirituality.
His visit, long called for by residential school survivors and their families, brought many painful memories back to the surface for First Nations, Inuit and Métis Peoples.
It also raised questions for some about the importance of the Pope’s repentance in their personal path to healing.
Solomon said Pope Francis “took a stand” in coming to Canada to meet chiefs, elders and survivors, and while the Catholic Church is held to account, the federal government must be too.
Despite the Church’s role, Solomon said his Christian faith has supported his healing journey and helped position him to support other people on their’s as well.
“I think my faith in our Creator, our Lord Jesus, has always given me the strength to try and stay focused because I’m still helping people whatever way you look at it,” he said.
“We’re still helping people try to get through this.”
In partnership with the federal government, the Catholic Church ran about 60 per cent of the 139 residential schools in Canada, the last of which closed in 1996.
More than 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children were taken, thousands of whom never returned. Those who did come home did not return whole, countless among them having witnessed or endured horrific physical, sexual and spiritual abuse.
Their trauma was passed onto their children and loved ones, creating lasting intergenerational harm.
Pope Francis apologized three times during his pilgrimage for the “catastrophic” impacts of policies surrounding the schools, and the “evil committed by so many Christians” against the Indigenous. In front of reporters on Friday night, he also said the abuses they endured amounted to genocide.
Lise Coocoo-Dubé is familiar with the horror stories; her three sisters and two brothers were forced to attend a residential school in Quebec. As she stood on a riser with elders and survivors from her nation at the Plains of Abraham on Wednesday, she said it was “important” for her to hear the pontiff ask for forgiveness personally.
“I want to be here. I want to live this moment with our survivors and elders here,” the Atikamekw de Manawan mental health worker told Global News in French.
Coocoo-Dubé was raised Catholic and revealed she keeps that faith because she has “a lot of respect for her parents.” She also practices Indigenous spirituality, she added, and is discovering the ceremonies that help her learn more about who she is.
Wearing an orange bandana stitched with her nation’s name, Coocoo-Dubé said it’s important for Pope Francis not only to understand the Church’s role in residential schools but its contributions to the systemic racism faced by Indigenous Peoples throughout the country.
“He already knows our past but he needs to know our present as well with all the social problems that we live and the difficulties we encounter in the health system, justice system, police — in every system.”
Earlier in the week, Pope Francis visited the Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples in Edmonton’s inner city to celebrate its reopening after a devastating fire in 2020. To secure the area for his visit, many unhoused people — including Indigenous people — were temporarily displaced.
Hundreds pressed themselves against the security fences outside the church on Monday to catch a glimpse of the pontiff. Among them was Debby Gunville, who said she has a long and complicated relationship with Catholicism.
“I was in the (foster care) system all my life from day one,” she told Global News, tears forming behind her glasses.
“I was raised by a religious fanatic. She was very good — food on the table and everything — but there was a lack of love.”
Gunville was born in Regina and raised in Prince Albert, Sask. As a child, she said she would pray to the little angels in her books or their statues in the church her family attended.
“When you face that hurt when you’re small, you need something to believe in,” she said, others nodding in agreement around her.
“I asked for that strength and the Creator gave it to me. I’m still here and I wonder why.”
Over the years, Gunville said she has visited sacred places, including Batoche, Sask., and Lac Ste. Anne in central Alberta, where Pope Francis participated in an annual pilgrimage Tuesday. There, he wore a red Métis sash around his neck and greeted the crowd in the Nakota, Cree and Blackfoot languages.
Gunville said she doesn’t know which nation she is from, but through the family of her ex-partner, the mother of three has learned “native ways.” One of daughters is now a Métis citizen, she added.
“I think what the Pope is doing is wonderful,” she told Global News.
“I think it’s healing for everybody and we can wash the tears away, and march onto a stronger and better future for Canada, for everybody. We have to forgive in order to move on. We have to put it behind us because that’s where it’s got to stay, but we can’t forget it.”
Forgetting was never an option for Norman Kistabish of Abitibiwinni First Nation in northwestern Quebec. Memories of his first day at the Amos residential school are seared into his brain, he said.
He was “happy to go in there,” unaware at six years old that he and his brother would not be going home anytime soon. His good mood was short-lived, he told Global News.
“I was hungry. I want to eat something,” Kistabish remembered, sitting on a camping chair at the Plains of Abraham while waiting for Pope Francis to arrive on Wednesday.
“They gave us a kind of rice, not really cooked, so I eat it, eat it, eat it, and the rice cooked in my stomach. I fell down.”
Kistabish later awoke in the school’s nursery upstairs and found his brother crying. He said he suggested they run away together that very moment.
Six years later, he said he did, and his father brought him back.
Kistabish said he travelled to the Plains of Abraham to gauge the pontiff’s “sincerity” when he spoke as “another step” in his path to wellness. For the past 20 years, however, he has done the hard work on healing himself and that’s who he’ll continue to rely on, not the Church.
“Religion? I don’t trust that anymore. I want to hear from some other guys like me,” he said, sitting next to his wife, daughter and granddaughter on the grassy plain.
When sex, drugs and alcohol left him wanting, Kistabish said he turned to community. With help from his wife and others, he relearned his Anishinaabemowin language, which was almost stolen from him at the Amos residential school, also known as the St-Marc-de-Figuery school.
“I went back to the bush again to learn what’s the name of the tree, recognize the animals, recognize the birds. That’s my church for me,” he said.
“Just living the love, living the peace, the respect, the sharing with everybody else. Do that (and) you’re going to feel something more in your soul.”
The 85-year-old pontiff is now back in Rome and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops will spearhead the Church’s efforts to reconcile with Indigenous Peoples.
Solomon said his Christian faith was strong before the Holy Father’s pilgrimage to First Nations land, but his visit “probably” made it “a little bit stronger.” Nevertheless, more action is needed to back up the “talk,” he said.
“Is he going to back to Rome and forget about us? Until we see something … something has got to be done,” Solomon told Global News.
“I know it’s a tough battle that we’re in. A lot of our people are still hurting.”
Solomon said he is still affiliated with a church, but began to walk the “spiritual path” several years ago. Walking in both worlds allows him to fulfill a “responsibility” to help his people in “different ways.”
“I was glad I went on the Red Path to try and learn more about the native culture. I guess I’m learning both ways,” he told Global News.
“I think as native people, Indigenous people, our cultures, our traditions are going to help us to heal.”
The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line (1-800-721-0066) is available 24 hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience.
The Hope for Wellness Help Line offers culturally competent counselling and crisis intervention to all Indigenous Peoples experiencing trauma, distress, strong emotions and painful memories. The line can be reached anytime toll-free at 1-855-242-3310.
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