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Grand Chief delivers residential school message to Pope

BY Ben Powless Apr 13, 2022

The journey towards healing and reconciliation brought 30 Indigenous delegates to the Vatican for meetings with Pope Francis March 28 to April 1. The delegation is seeking justice for the Catholic Church’s role in residential schools, including an official apology during his planned trip to Canada later this year.

The gathering included separate meetings with First Nations, Inuit and Métis groups before the Pope was to formally respond to all delegates the final day. After expressing pain at the discovery of unmarked graves at the Kamloops residential school last June, Pope Francis agreed to visit Canada to contribute to reconciliation efforts.   

“I think that event created an openness,” said Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty. “I look at this as the first step in the reconciliation process, as somebody who is asking to connect. I have every intention of treating him as somebody who has a willingness to address what has happened and make things right. Is he going to do that? I guess we’ll find out.”

The Assembly of First Nations chose Gull-Masty to address the issue of reparations. She told the Nation that the delegation had met virtually for months to develop a message about the impact of residential schools, including testimonies from survivors, and pathways towards reconciliation.

“My section deals with our expectations about having practical support and viable solutions to implement,” explained Gull-Masty. “My statement is to ensure reparations are made to intergenerational survivors, but also to start up a reconciliation fund so we can ensure that other Canadians can support this process as well.”

While Cree survivors discuss a proposed investigation of residential school sites on Fort George Island, there is hope the Vatican will shed light on what happened there. There is little to no information about survivors or those responsible for abuses they encountered.

“The message that came over and over again is having access to student records for the school in Chisasibi,” said Gull-Masty. “There’s a lot of questions around what happened to students, who were the teachers, who were making the decisions to send staff there. This has to be addressed.” 

Gull-Masty believes the community will announce whether they will proceed with ground-penetrating radar in April, and she fully supports whichever direction they pursue. However, just as some survivors oppose investigating the source of their traumatic experience, several Cree have publicly expressed their opposition to seeking an apology from the Pope.

“The Indigenous delegation travelling to the Vatican is kind of robbing me of my dignity,” posted Maïtée Labrecque-Saganash on Facebook. “I don’t think that performing trauma for the Pope and begging for a half-assed apology is repairing the harm caused to my family, and it doesn’t make me feel empowered at all.”

Her statement generated a flurry of discussion. Gull-Masty commented that, despite conflicted feelings of some survivors, the delegation prepared “a strong message of accountability.” 

“I felt very conflicted at one point, and I had to seek advice,” Gull-Masty added. “On speaking with residential school survivors, I haven’t had one say, ‘Don’t do it’. One stated when you’re going on a journey of healing, a big part is looking at forgiveness. Forgiveness provides closure – if we can complete that process for them, that’s a significant part of my duty here.”

Gull-Masty believes the youth are pivotal in taking this healing to the next stage and appreciates that Youth Grand Chief Adrian Gunner accompanied her to Rome.

“It’s the youth who are going to bring this forward and break that chain,” asserted Gull-Masty. “I don’t want to see the next generation after Adrian still carrying the need for reconciliation. I want them to talk about how they have achieved healing from the historical impact of residential schools if that’s possible.” 

Gunner admitted he’s trying to process complex feelings. Before going, his grandfather George showed him the scars he still bears from residential school and told him he’d prefer the Pope apologize in Canada.

“They shared the tip of the iceberg of their stories and it’s a lot to process,” Gunner said. “I have all these mixed emotions – I’m angry with what happened but trying to figure it out on the inside.” 

Gunner’s other grandfather, the late Grand Chief Billy Diamond, met Pope John Paul II in 1984. Gunner says Diamond talked about the mistreatment and presented traditional snowshoes as a gift. Gunner presented a similar gift to Pope Francis during this trip “to show the appreciation there’s an open door.”

“Sometimes I wish I could call my late grandfather and ask him what I should expect – any pointers?” reflected Gunner. “With him being gone, that’s the part of the trip that’s very touchy for me. I never thought I’d be doing this – I could have only dreamed about it.” 

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Ben Powless is a Kanien'kehá:ka and Anishnabek writer and photographer, currently living in Ottawa. He has a degree in Human Rights, Indigenous and Environmental Studies from Carleton University.