Warning: This story deals with disturbing subject matter that may upset and trigger some readers. Discretion is advised.
Phil Fontaine took no speaking notes to the lectern at a University Canada West convocation ceremony in Vancouver earlier this month.
Dressed in a gown of blue and black, Fontaine — a natural storyteller, according to his wife — began his speech with a nod to the Coast Salish drummer and elder who led the ceremony with song and prayer.
“This is an innovation at such gatherings,” the former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations told an audience of more than 400 graduates.
“It’s important to recognize this innovation because it speaks to the transformation that’s taking place in our country.”
Over their distinguished careers and lifelong advocacy for human rights, both Fontaine and his partner, Kathleen Mahoney, have had front-row seats to Canada’s “transformation” in truth and reconciliation.
They were leading architects of the landmark Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement in 2006, which included a multi-billion-dollar package with compensation and support for survivors, and of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, whose findings have impacted policy at all levels of government.
In March and April, Fontaine and Mahoney made their second trip to the Vatican to share the gut-wrenching truth of residential schools, and call for a papal apology for their intergenerational harms.
The couple is now days away from a third encounter with the leader of the Catholic Church.
On Sunday, Pope Francis arrives in Canada for an unprecedented reconciliation tour spanning Edmonton, Quebec City and Iqaluit. He is expected to apologize for the lasting trauma and loss of life caused by residential schools, building on his unexpected atonement before First Nations, Inuit and Métis representatives at the Vatican in the spring.
It is sure to be another “watershed” moment in Canada’s transformation, delivered on Indigenous land as called for by survivors through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said Fontaine.
“It will be a real mistake of monumental proportions if we were to think that the apology was the end of the story and not the beginning,” the former chief of the Sagkeeng First Nation in Manitoba told Global News.
“This is our moment and we have to take full advantage of it.”
Canada’s church- and state-sponsored residential school system locked away more than 150,000 Indigenous children, ripping them from their families in an effort to destroy Indigenous identities. Thousands died from abuse, disease and malnutrition, and countless more were subjected to sickening violence at the hands of priests and nuns.
Since last spring, ground-penetrating radar has detected more than a thousand suspected unmarked burial sites at former residential school grounds across the country — a haunting dose of reality that First Nations, Inuit and Métis delegates shared with the pontiff in Rome this year.
In his first apology, the Holy Father asked God’s forgiveness for “the deplorable conduct” of some clergy members, but not the church’s institutional role in orchestrating and perpetuating the harrowing system of assimilation.
Fontaine, a survivor of Manitoba’s Fort Alexander and Assiniboia residential schools, said he’s hopeful the Pope’s second apology “will include more.”
“To achieve success at every step of the journey that we’re going to be on is going to require the support of the Catholic Church, the government and more particularly, our community. Otherwise, we’ll falter and we can’t afford to fail.”
In the coming days, Pope Francis will meet with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Gov. Gen. Mary Simon, and residential school survivors from across Canada. A papal state visit normally takes more than a year to plan, but this one was arranged in about four months, with the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops taking on most of the heavy lifting.
The group organized the Indigenous delegation to the Vatican. It has committed to a renewed vision of “walking together” with Indigenous Peoples, and at least $30 million to support healing programs and initiatives for survivors, communities and families.
It has also supported calls for the Catholic Church to hand over all residential school documents in its possession, and voiced support for the prosecution of clergy members who engaged in criminal abuse.
As Pope Francis touches down in Edmonton on Sunday, however, neither he — nor the Canadian bishops — have addressed calls to rescind centuries-old papal decrees that enshrine the Doctrine of Discovery and concept of “terra nullius.” Those legal frameworks gave early Christian explorers permission to conquer, displace and enslave non-Christian Indigenous Peoples.
The Pope’s tour of sacred sites, churches, and former residential school grounds has not been without controversy. Some survivors have said the Holy Father’s words will not bring them healing.
The Assembly of First Nations, meanwhile, has criticized the bishops’ conference for its “unilateral” planning process, which may have “revictimized” the very survivors with whom it aims to build new relationships.
In a July 21 statement, National Chief RoseAnne Archibald and Northwest Territories Regional Chief Gerald Antoine said it is “apparent” that the papal tour and apology have “evolved to be more for the benefit of Canadian Catholic parishioners and the global Christian community” than for reparations and reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples.
In Rome back in April, Fontaine told Global News in an interview that he doesn’t expect perfection from the Catholic Church, but is confident Indigenous Peoples will emerge stronger, nevertheless.
Mahoney, a renowned domestic and international human rights lawyer, said there’s been a “sea change” in reconciliation during her lifetime and, for the most part, Canadians are now on board.
“They’ve decided, it seems to me in large part, that they want to be the Canadians they always thought they were, which is people that respect human rights, respect dignity, respect others as equal,” said the University of Calgary professor, dressed in the same black and blue gown as her husband.
“Reconciliation is going on throughout society both in the public and private sector. This is a direct result, in my view, of the brave people — Phil, of course, leading them — telling the truth.”
Mahoney received her first honourary doctorate at the University Canada West ceremony. Fontaine received his 19th — another symbol of transformation, he said.
“We’re finally being recognized for our contributions, whether we’re talking about sports, politics or education … this award is not something that is about one person. It’s about an entire community.”
Fontaine is a man who seldom uses the word “I” instead of “we.” Asked how he is preparing for the onslaught of emotions that will come with the papal visit, he said it’s “all about our community.”
“You have to take the moment that’s presented to you, position yourself and say what needs to be said in a way that reflects the interests of the community you’re from.”
Pope Francis will be in Edmonton from July 24 to 26, Quebec City from July 27 to 28, and Iqaluit on July 29 before his return to Rome.
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.