Warning: This story deals with disturbing subject matter that may upset and trigger some readers. Discretion is advised.
Italian filmmaker Raffaele Manco watched in horror from Rome as 215 unmarked burial sites — likely the remains of children — were detected on First Nations land in Canada.
The gut-wrenching news from Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc in British Columbia last spring made headlines around the world, a painful reminder that Canada’s residential school system was deadly for thousands of Indigenous children.
The disclosure prompted in-depth searches of former school sites that have since detected more than 1,800 possible or confirmed unmarked graves across the country.
As he scoured online article after article, it also moved Manco so deeply he decided to make a film.
“It was the last of many things that impacted me,” he said in Rome, his camera equipment sprawled over the nearest table at a hotel not far from the Colosseum. “The consequences of colonialism are not in the past. It’s something that’s here today and is not considered enough.”
Since Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc’s tragedy, the world has been watching Canada’s reconciliation story unfold.
Half a dozen international media outlets dispatched reporters to cover the historic delegation to Rome between March 28 and April 1, including Manco and his documentary film partner, Italian journalist Irene Sicurella.
Residential schools are a new topic for many Europeans, Sicurella explained, but the travelling Indigenous delegation has brought the grisly truth of them straight into their backyards.
“It’s strange for us because we work, like, 10 minutes away from the Vatican,” she said, sitting next to Manco in a quiet hallway of the delegation’s hotel in Rome.
“The Catholic Church has been one of the main (institutions) responsible, so I think it’s simply right to ask some questions.”
More than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were imprisoned in residential schools, the majority of which were run by the federal government and Catholic Church.
In the care of priests and nuns, countless thousands suffered horrific physical, sexual and spiritual abuse. Many thousands also died from neglect, disease, malnutrition and other causes, and the whereabouts of some of their remains are unknown.
Residential schools, however, are not an assimilation tactic unique to Canada.
Around the world, various boarding and day school models have been used by governments and missionaries to erase Indigenous cultures. Over the past 400 years, such institutions have existed in the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, Greenland and several countries in Northern Europe, where Sami peoples were forbidden from speaking their languages.
In between sunrise ceremonies, rehearsals and private audiences with Pope Francis, Indigenous delegates in Rome said they knew survivors around the world would be watching, searching for a glimmer of hope.
Katsitsionni Fox, an Akwesasne Mohawk spiritual advisor who was sent to Rome by her clan mother, said she hoped they could provide one.
“We’ve all gone through the same thing,” she told Global News. “You can talk to Aboriginal people in Australia and they’ll tell you they have the same stories that our relatives have, so hopefully it’s a step in that direction to help them out as well.”
After Pope Francis issued his controversial apology on April 1, Fox ended a livestreamed press conference from Rome with a haunting and beautiful tribute to the victims and survivors of residential schools, a song called Sky World.
There are an estimated 370 million to 500 million Indigenous people in more than 90 countries around the world. Countless among them seek reparation for centuries of land theft and abuse, but few have ever secured an audience with the Pope.
After the delegation, Phil Fontaine joined an even smaller group of people who can say they’ve done it twice. To those still seeking justice, his message was “obviously, not to give up.”
“There is just so much public attention to the plight of Indigenous peoples worldwide,” Fontaine, a residential school survivor, said in front of St. Peter’s Square, where he met Pope Benedict in 2009.
“Without a doubt, the 215 unmarked graves in Kamloops is a pivotal moment because it shocked the nation and put Canada, before the eyes of the world.”
After Métis representatives concluded their meeting with the pontiff on March 28, Edmonton-based cultural facilitator Gary Gagnon said his Native American friends have been following the Canadian delegation “extremely closely.”
They would be tuning in for the meeting on April 1, he added, when Pope Francis addressed a general audience of more than 200 survivors, elders, knowledge keepers, leaders and youth from Canada.
“I know there’s some movement down there right now,” Gagnon said over the sound of Métis fiddlers by St. Peter’s Square. “They’re going to determine what they’re going to do after these meetings.”
Progress made by First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples in Rome has already caught the attention of survivors in the United States. On April 1, when Pope Francis asked forgiveness for the “deplorable conduct” of some Catholic Church members, the National Native American Boarding School Society issued an online statement right away.
The Minneapolis-based organization called on the Catholic Church and other religious denominations to now “turn to the atrocities” committed on American soil during the “Indian Boarding School policy era.”
“Acknowledging harm in one country while not taking similar, measurable steps in another country continues to perpetuate the harm against Native American, Alaska Native, and other Indigenous survivors of boarding schools and their descendants,” it wrote.
“We look forward to hearing a response and further details from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops about their efforts in the United States to address the harms committed here.”
As the Canadian delegates have done, the coalition called on the Catholic Church and other religious organizations to release all records pertaining to the assimilative institutions in the U.S. and revoke the Doctrine of Discovery. It also called for churches to endorse the launch of a Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies.
Meanwhile, Manco and Sicurella are planning a reporting trip to Canada to gather content for the documentary. The story will be rooted in Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc but will include First Nations in Alberta and Manitoba as well.
“I think we have a one-way narrative about Canada and that is the country of tolerance and integration, where everybody is welcome,” said Sicurella, in between translating Manco’s comments in Italian.
“Also our network has talked about Canada in this way and only in this way, so I don’t think many people know about this.”
Manco, who has a history of film production on human rights topics, said their “passion” for the topic convinced their employer to fund the documentary. It will air this summer on the investigative news program of PresaDiretta, a national Italian television network.
“I’m very moved about all of this and how systematic it was,” said Sicurella. “It was a huge human rights violation and it doesn’t have to happen again in the future.”
Residential school survivors have asked to be directly involved in planning Pope Francis’s undated trip to Canada. The pontiff has not committed to apologize on Canadian soil, but rather said he looked forward to being “able to better express” his closeness to Indigenous Peoples.
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.