The apology from the head of an institution that inflicted years of cultural, emotional and physical abuse upon Indigenous children through residential schools is a step in the right direction, according to some members of the Mi’kmaq Nation.
But a woman who survived an Indian day school, and whose siblings are survivors of the residential school system, says actions speak louder than words.
Violet Paul’s five siblings are survivors of the former Shubenacadie Residential School, opened by the Canadian government and run by the Roman Catholic Church from the 1930s to the late 1960s.
She said that while her siblings are resilient, they still struggle with trauma.
“We can’t get the hurt out of them,” she said. “They cry. They’re grown men and they cry about the hurt that happened to them in there.”
Friday morning in Rome, Pope Francis apologized for the grave and lasting harm caused by the church- and state-sponsored residential school system.
Speaking in Italian, the pontiff said he was “deeply grieved” by the stories of abuse, hardship and discrimination he heard throughout the week from members of Indigenous delegations from around the country.
Paul is a survivor of an Indian day school, another tool of assimilation used against Indigenous children. She said she still bears the scars from her time there – scars largely caused by people who represented the Catholic Church.
“I never had any choices in my life,” she said.
“Any time I got in trouble, or was acting up, the priest would come. If I ran away from home, the priest would be looking for me. And I found that very strange, that the priest was in my life so much.
“They used to tell me I’m going to go to Hell if I don’t start listening.”
‘How do they make up for all that?’
Her experience has had an impact not only on her but on her family as well.
“I put my trauma on my children … they both became addicts, and they’re healing, and we’re pretty close now, but a lot of things happened to them,” said Paul.
“The church did all this. So how do they make up for all that? How do they recognize all the pain and sorrow that people went through?”
Paul said the apology from the Pope appeared very scripted – “so scripted that it does not allow for any legal interpretation” – and she believes he was careful with his words to avoid potential lawsuits.
She said she has seen comments online suggesting the Indigenous delegates were looking for “more money.” But for her, it’s never been about money.
“Money can never heal that hurt,” she said.
“For all the years of suffering, and loss of culture and language, and intergenerational trauma – all the amount of money in the world can’t change that.”
The Pope’s apology, which called the conduct of those from the Catholic Church who ran the residential schools “deplorable,” also didn’t mention the bodies of the children found at residential schools across the nation, or the thousands that remain missing, Paul noted.
“Well, that was a deplorable action, and you know that it happened,” she said. “Why didn’t you say that?”
She believes the apology was a step toward reconciliation – but said the words must be paired with concrete action to right the wrongs that led to decades of suffering and intergenerational trauma.
Without action, what does the Pope’s apology mean? “Nothing,” said Paul.
“That’s like a man going to jail for sexually assaulting his children. And what does he say? ‘I’m sorry.’ And that’s how I see it.
“Is that apology genuine, or is it because you’re in front of a judge, or people?”
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Paul said that although she doesn’t go to church, she’s still Catholic – despite everything she’s been through.
“God never did that to me,” she said. “I prayed to God every day when I went through my hard times. Everything came through … and I do have some faith in God.”
‘They didn’t get to come home’
Like Paul, Garrett Gloade of Millbrook First Nation, the son of Indian day school survivors, said more needs to be done to address the generations of Indigenous people who still live with the trauma inflicted by the Catholic Church to this day.
“‘Sorry’ is used to help to begin the healing, but there’s so much more that needs to be done than just, ‘I’m sorry,’” he said.
“They’re a billion-dollar organization that has pillaged and plundered through many Indigenous cultures throughout the world … put some of that money back into Indigenous communities. Get Indigenous communities to have clean drinking water.
“It’s pennies. It’s pennies compared to what they made.”
Gloade said he feels saddened for the many Indigenous children who died at residential schools across the nation, who are not alive today to hear the Pope’s apology.
“I get to practice my culture every day. Those children didn’t. They didn’t get to come home,” he said. “They didn’t get to practice their culture. It was stripped from them. And then they had to die alone.”
The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line (1-866-925-4419) is available 24 hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience.
— with files from Global News’ Amber Fryday