“WE ARE STILL HERE”: Residential school survivor has message for Pope Francis, Catholic Church

St. Catharines Standard [St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada]

March 29, 2022

By Dave Baxter

While Indigenous leaders from across Canada are in the Vatican this week to meet with Pope Francis and discuss the ongoing impacts of the residential school system and seek a papal apology, residential school survivors are also gathering in Winnipeg, and one said she has a message for the Pope and for the Catholic Church: that it failed when it tried for years to eradicate Indigenous culture in Canada.

“Although we could not be at the Vatican to meet with the Pope, I want to show the Catholic Church and Pope Francis that we are still here.” Geraldine Shingoose said to a rousing applause from the crowd as the We Are Still Here: The Survivors Legacy Conference kicked off on Tuesday in Winnipeg.

The conference brought hundreds of survivors of Canada’s Residential School system together at the Victoria Inn Hotel and Conference Centre for what will be three days of discussions surrounding the residential school system and its impacts on survivors and on generations of Indigenous people in Canada.

The conference opened on Tuesday with a keynote address from Shingoose, who spent nine years of her childhood forced to attend residential schools.

Shingoose gave an emotional speech in which she spoke about her own experiences of abuse and mistreatment while in residential schools.

“In residential school, I experienced physical abuse, I experienced emotional and psychological abuse, I experienced sexual abuse, and I experienced spiritual abuse,” Shingoose said.

Shingoose said the emotional and psychological abuse she dealt with as a child has caused her ongoing trauma throughout her life, and it left her for many years with low self-esteem because of the things that she was told about herself and about her culture.

“I heard messages that I was a dirty Indian, I was a sinner and I was going to go to hell,” Shingoose said.

“I was stupid, I was ugly, those were the messages I received while I was in residential school, and there were no words of love or support.”

She said the spiritual abuse came from being taken from her family and from her culture, and from being forced to only speak English and forbidden from speaking her traditional language.

“I didn’t learn English so much as English was beaten into me,” she said. “Whenever I would speak my language, they would hit me or strap me.”

As Shingoose told her story some in the crowd wept, and at one point she asked all survivors of the residential school system who were in attendance to stand, an emotional moment that saw hundreds at the conference get on their feet.

Shingoose said she hopes that the delegates who are now gathered in the Vatican and meeting with the Pope are doing all that they can to make sure the he learns and understands the true horrors of what so many went through in residential schools, and how those schools impacted so many lives.

“The Catholic Church committed a crime, “she said. “The delegation over there and the survivors over there they are teaching them, and they are going to learn our truth.

“Our truth is going to be heard.”

The We Are Still Here: The Survivors Legacy Conference will continue on Wednesday and Thursday in Winnipeg.

— Dave Baxter is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Winnipeg Sun. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.