VATICAN CITY (CNS) — After holding several rounds of “listening circles” in Canada, representatives of Indigenous communities and bishops brought Pope Francis into their circle.
In separate meetings March 28 and March 31, Pope Francis listened to delegates from the Métis, Inuit and First Nation communities and, especially, to the survivors of government-funded, church-operated residential schools. Students at the schools were torn from their families, punished for speaking their languages and many were emotionally, physically or sexually abused.
The elected leaders of the Indigenous organizations made official statements in Rome, but mostly gave time and space for the survivors to share their personal stories with the pope and with the media.
Ted Quewezance, a former chief of the Keeseekoose First Nation and former executive director of the National Residential School Survivors Society, said he joined the delegates hoping for an apology from Pope Francis and as part of the process “to bring closure to the pain and sorrow that each of us experienced.”
Quewezance was one of the first survivors in Canada to speak publicly about having been sexually abused at a church-run residential school near his home in Saskatchewan.
“When I was taken away from my grandparents,” he said, pausing to recompose himself, “it’s long ago, but it hurts. One thing I’ll never forget, never, will never forget is the pain that we experienced. The sexual abuse, physical abuse and the trauma that we experienced.”
He also hopes for an acknowledgement by the pope that members of the First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities, including those who continue to treasure their cultural and spiritual traditions, “are human beings. We are not atheists. We are not evil. We are human beings.”
After the discovery of bodies in unmarked graves at the site of a residential school in British Columbia in May 2021, Quewezance worked with Keeseekoose survivors and elders to use ground-penetrating radar to search the land around the two schools he went to as well.
Guided by stories passed among the Keeseekoose about places that were haunted or where children were forbidden to play, he said, they found 54 anomalies that could indicate bodies buried, unmarked, outside the graveyards.
Wearing an orange shirt to honor the Indigenous children who were taken from their families and sent to the schools, Quewezance also wears an orange beaded necklace featuring a photo of his 6-month-old great-granddaughter, Ella. He was hoping the pope would bless it.
At the schools, he said, the children were taught to despise their language and cultures; Quewezance now is doing a private podcast to help his grandchildren learn their language and the Keeseekoose ceremonies.
“In my journey, I was a very angry man, very angry,” he said. “I was mean because I was angry, but I took it upon myself to get to understand forgiveness,” especially the need to forgive himself first and ask the forgiveness of his wife, children and grandchildren.
The survivors who traveled to Rome and the leaders of their communities spoke repeatedly of the “intergenerational trauma” caused by the schools with the abused pupils going on to mistreat their own family members or falling prey to addiction.
“Within my family in the last 10 years, we lost 19 of our relatives — sisters, nieces, nephews — through suicide, overdoses, opioids. Nineteen we lost, and that’s painful,” Quewezance said.
All the delegations in Rome asked Pope Francis for help securing records from Catholic dioceses and religious orders regarding the schools, not only to fill out the history of the schools, but also to identify the people in the unmarked graves.
Quewezance said the Keeseekoose do not plan to exhume the bodies, but would like to mark their graves and, especially, “we’ll do a ceremony to get them blessed and on their journey to the other side.”
The delegates also want a commitment from the pope and Canadian bishops to moving forward together on a path determined by the survivors and elders.
“It’s about truth telling, you know; breaches have been made, but how do we fix them?” Quewezance said. “We could carry on and fight for the next 100 years, is it going to solve anything?”
His dream is that Ella, and all the Indigenous children in Canada, “will grow up to have peace, to have her culture, to have her traditions.”
“Every child matters, whether they be First Nations, Inuit, Métis, Italians, Ukrainians, Russians,” he said. “That’s what it’s about: peace and loving one another.”
Archbishop Donald Bolen of Regina, who has been working with Quewezance, said he began hearing the stories of the residential school survivors 10 years ago as part of the truth and reconciliation process in Saskatchewan.
“For me, I think it was the start of the fracturing of a narrative that we had of what Canada was about and what the church did when it came to that land,” as well as the church’s relationship with the Indigenous peoples, its missionary activity and the role of the schools, he said. “There was a certain narrative embedded that was being torn apart and torn apart for the church, torn apart for the nation. And so, the voice of survivors became kind of a line to a different kind of truth.”
“Those are powerful stories, and they are true stories,” he said, “so they open you up to a wave of suffering, waves of suffering.”
“The church is a communion, horizontally and vertically,” the archbishop said. “So, we’re connected to the people that went before us, and where there was caused great pain and suffering, we are connected to that and so apologizing is appropriate.”
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