Perry Omeasoo finds comfort in cooking in his Vancouver home. He welcomes moments of calm — finding peace has been a struggle over the decades.
“I had a good spiritual upbringing and they took me away from that and put me in Indian residential school,” he said.
When Omeasoo was five years old, he was ripped away from his family and put into the Ermineskin Residential School — one of the largest in Canada.
“What a difficult and ugly change in my life. It caused me nothing but havoc,” Omeasoo said.
“Prior to that, I don’t remember my grandfather hitting more or yelling at me. I remember being fed proper food by my grandmother. I remember being allowed to play and be a little boy.”
Omeasoo said he was abused and lonely. He didn’t understand English but wasn’t allowed to speak Cree.
“My cousin said, ‘Don’t get caught speaking Cree or you’re going to get hit.’ For like a year, I hardly spoke to anybody… I never felt so alone.
“All of a sudden, I was a soldier when I went to residential school,” he said.
Omeasoo felt raw when the 215 unmarked graves were discovered at a former residential school in Kamloops. He remembers weeping for days as more and more communities found unmarked graves.
“I would keep getting triggered.”
Omeasoo is from Maskwacis, but he won’t travel to hear a papal apology. To him, it’s a symbol of pain.
“There’s a whole bunch of different feelings that come up with the Pope coming up,” Omeasoo said.
“I tell people that I am going to carry the darkness of residential school until the day I die.”
The Pope’s visit has opened a floodgate of feelings, especially for those living in communities the Pope is heading to. Josh Littlechild, 39, is thankful he didn’t go to residential school, but his dad did. Littlechild has felt that aftershock his whole life.
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“My dad was the longest residential school survivor on the nation. He went for 15 years,” Littlechild said.
“It impacted my life quite a bit because the Catholic conservative values that are onset with our people are deeply woven… There are generations of people who went to these schools and just have muddled up what their identity is.”
Now that Littlechild has children of his own, he realized that even though he didn’t go residential school, it has affected his parenting.
“I had to really start over and understand these guys weren’t really taught how to be parents, so I got to start from scratch,” Littlechild said. “When I asked my dad advice, there’s certain things he can’t answer — he can’t because they were raised by nuns.”
Littlechild said he won’t be going to see the Pope, he has booked a therapy session instead. He said he does feel good about the visit because the people who need it will be there.
“(My dad) grew up in a rural area, in central Alberta where it’s cowboy country and cowboys don’t cry, so it’s toughen up, get some beers in you, you should feel better. I kind of grew up with that and with the Pope coming, I am starting to see an 80-year-old man who is ready to heal.”
Preparations ahead of the Pope’s visit to Maskwacis
Pope Francis announced he was coming to Canada in May, and in 11 weeks, volunteers pulled together to make that happen. Father Cristino Bouvette is with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Calgary, and is Indigenous. He will be lead Francis during his visit.
“As a priest, when you think about the possibility, and it’s only really a possibility that someday you might meet the Holy Father, you just picture a brief handshake in some passing crowd outside of the Vatican or something. I could have never have imagined being in the position I am in now,” Bouvette said.
In 1926, Bouvette’s kokum — his grandmother — went to residential school.
“My paternal grandmother spent 12 years of her life in the Indian residential school system… I always knew that she had been in one of these schools but it wasn’t until I was in my late teens that there was any controversy around them. Then I realized that she never really talked about school.”
Bouvette hopes to represent his faith and culture.
“I’ve had this interesting dynamic of very happily being a Catholic priest and wanting to serve and represent my church well, but also know that before I was ever a Catholic priest I’ve been an Indigenous person since the moment of my conception and I want to make sure that I am fairly and properly representing and advocating for my own people as well.”
On Monday in Maskwacis, the Pope will visit the former Ermineskin Residential School site and head to Bear Park to hold a formal program. He is expected to apologize for the Catholic Church’s role in residential schools.
“I hope for those who have been waiting for this, or hoping for this, receive what they have been waiting for; if this is an aid to their own healing and progress in their own individual journey of reconciliation.”