True reconciliation will require forgiveness, says former AFN national chief ahead of Pope’s visit

CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) [Toronto, Canada]

July 20, 2022

By Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Ines Colabrese.

Phil Fontaine says Pope Francis must offer expanded apology during visit to Canada next week

Phil Fontaine says Pope Francis must expand on his apology for residential schools when he visits Canada next week.

But the former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations also wants people to know that an apology is not “the end of the story, it’s just the beginning.”

“We still have so much work to do to heal the past and to bring about true reconciliation. We ourselves have to forgive. Otherwise, the story never ends,” said Fontaine, who was AFN national chief from 1997 to 2000 and from 2003 to 2009.

“And I believe that many, many people want to see this story end on a more positive note,” he told The Current’s guest host Duncan McCue.

The Pope will visit Canada next week, in what he recently described as a “pilgrimage of penance” through Edmonton, Quebec City and Iqaluit.

The visits comes after evidence began to emerge last year, identifying potentially thousands of unmarked graves at the sites of former residential schools.

WATCH | Pope Francis says he hopes Canada visit will help heal injustices

More than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were forced to attend residential schools between the 1870s and 1990s, a project of church and government established to “take the Indian out of the child.”

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final 2015 report described the system as “cultural genocide.”

When Indigenous delegations visited Rome in April, the pontiff apologized for “deplorable abuses” at residential schools, but faced criticism for denouncing the conduct of some members of the Catholic Church, rather than taking responsibility for the role of the wider institution.

The apology also did not address the issues of compensation, releasing records related to residential schools, or prosecution of those known to have participated in abuse.

Fontaine first went public with his own experience of residential school abuses in 1990. He has waited decades for an apology from the Church, and was present at the Vatican in April.

“Time hasn’t lessened the significance and depth of those words. They mean a lot to me,” he said.

“But I’m also expecting that when he’s here to apologize, that he will expand on the words that were expressed by him.”

Fontaine said the Pope didn’t acknowledge “the Catholic Church as an institution was the responsible party” for the abuses perpetrated in residential schools.

“There’s an expectation that in Maskwacis he will add those words, in some form,” he said, referring to the town in Alberta where Pope Francis is expected to offer the apology, on July 25.

Fontaine not seeking ‘retribution’

Fontaine said the Church had “tremendous responsibility and influence over the implementation of the residential school policy, its methodology, [and] its effect on children.”

“It was the Catholic Church that entered into … a legal relationship with the federal government to run schools for the government. And so they had a very significant role in the implementation of this terrible policy,” he said.

Fontaine was forced to attend Fort Alexander Residential School, operated by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, at Sagkeeng First Nation in Manitoba.

In his 1990 interview, he discussed how children faced abuse ranging from humiliation to physical and sexual abuse. He said every single child in his class experienced some type of abuse.

WATCH | Phil Fontaine’s 1990 account of abuse at residential school

Last month, 92-year-old retired priest Arthur Masse was charged in connection with the sexual assault of a 10-year-old student at Fort Alexander, in the late 1960s.

Fontaine said it’s important for survivors to see perpetrators face consequences, but added that his own abuser died decades before he went public. 

“I’m not into retribution, I really am not,” he told McCue.

“The main perpetrator is gone. He died, and there isn’t much I can do about that — other than to pursue what I did, which was an inquiry, research — so that we could write the story of the residential school experience — and then an apology,” he said.

“That’s what I was after.”

Support is available for anyone affected by the lingering effects of residential school and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for residential school survivors and others affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.,True%20reconciliation%20will%20require%20forgiveness%2C%20says%20former%20AFN%20national%20chief,work%20isn't%20over%20yet.