I witnessed the Pope’s apology — and felt the power of a moment of justice

Toronto Star [Toronto, Canada]

April 3, 2022

By Brandi Morin

Assembly of First Nations delegate lead Dene National Chief Gerald Antoine called the scene a “divine moment” in time.

It rained for three days straight in Rome, but on Friday the clouds parted above St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City following the long-awaited apology given by Pope Francis to residential school survivors and their families.

Beams of light shone down on the Indigenous delegates addressing the media in the square. Assembly of First Nations delegate lead Dene National Chief Gerald Antoine called the scene a “divine moment” in time, and indeed it was.

The apology by the head of the Catholic Church took me by surprise. I was viewing a live feed of the Pope speaking to delegates in a private ceremony from the Vatican press office nearby and did a double-take when I heard the translator say, “I am sorry.” Those simple but powerful words had at last been uttered for all the world to hear.

I’d been in Rome covering the historic meetings between First Nations, Metis and Inuit delegates, residential school survivors and the Pontiff for a week, but did not anticipate the admission of wrongs to happen here.

The delegates I’ve been following while on assignment for Al Jazeera English had invited the Pontiff to Indigenous territories back home and hoped for an apology down the road. When it happened in the majestic Sala Clementina Hall in the Apostolic Palace, I was told there were gasps from survivors in the room.about:blank

Gasping perhaps in response to hundreds of years of living in survival mode against genocide. In those clandestine moments, catching their breaths, releasing generations of suffering, anguish, sorrow, anger and uncertainty. That’s what it felt like for me hearing those words, and the Pontiff’s admissions of the evil the church perpetuated against Indigenous children in the name of God calling those actions, “deplorable.”

I had prepared to travel to Rome for this momentous event for months, but I was not prepared for the massive burden I felt as soon as I stepped onto the soil of the birthplace of colonization. The entire week was a whirlwind. I was there to work, to document the survivors and delegates as they went through the proceedings of these discussions with the Pope that had been requested for decades. However, I wasn’t just a journalist in this situation, I was an intergenerational survivor also deeply experiencing generations of trauma. I carried the pain of my ancestors.

I thought of my Kohkum who passed away in 2008, two months before Canada issued an apology to residential school survivors. A survivor of an Indian residential school, she didn’t get to live to see that day, but I felt her spirit with me in Rome on Friday and knew she was celebrating from heaven. I know she was proud I was there to witness the first step towards justice via the Catholic Church. When I felt the weight was too much, I found strength in her blood running through my veins, I found strength in carrying the hundreds of stories of survivors I have met over the years, and I found strength in praying for hope for this generation.

I ran outside to the square after the apology, and the weight was suddenly lifted from my shoulders. The atmosphere had shifted. The sun had burst past the rain and the sounds of Indigenous songs echoing through the plaza reverberated in my heart synchronizing with every beat of the drums.

Dr. Wilton Littlechild, from my home territories in Treaty 6, Alberta, stood up from his walker and joined the dancing, grinning from ear to ear. It was his 78th birthday. He was taken to residential school at age six and endured all the atrocities of evil there. A former commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which called for this apology in 2015, he had personally heard the tormenting accounts of abuse from nearly 7,000 survivors across Canada.

He lived to see this day after decades of unrelenting advocating for Indigenous rights around the world and petitioning the Catholic Church for an apology. And it was a wondrous thing to see him celebrating.

This is the first step in reconciliation with the Catholic Church, but it’s an extraordinary step. Because now there is hope for healing, now reconciliation with the church can begin and healing within our communities.

As Littlechild told me, “How do we move forward with reconciliation? Once you’ve had the apology you have an opportunity to forgive. I think that piece (was) still missing and that’s why our communities are still hurting. Then, with an apology, people will begin to feel a sense of healing. And once that happens a new emotion originates — a sense of justice. To say ‘Yes, wrong was done to me. I’m forgiving now and going to heal and I feel justice has been done.’

Brandi Morin, an award-winning French/Cree/Iroquois journalist from Treaty 6 in Alberta, is a freelance contributor for the Star.