‘We won’t forget’: Manitoba residential school survivors respond to Pope Francis’ apology

CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) [Toronto, Canada]

July 26, 2022

By Rachel Bergen

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

Christina Kitchekesik couldn’t travel to Maskwacis, Alta., to see Pope Francis apologize to survivors of residential schools, but felt emotional watching the televised program alongside others at a viewing event in Winnipeg on Monday.

“It’ll always affect us for the rest of our lives. We won’t forget, but we have to learn to live with it by healing yourself, going through ceremonies,” said Kitchekesik, who is from Tataskweyak Cree Nation, about 900 kilometres north of Winnipeg.

She is one of a number of Manitoba residential school survivors — although she now considers herself a “thriver” — who watched the Pope address thousands of Indigenous people in Canada.

Pope Francis apologized for members of the Catholic Church who co-operated with Canada’s “devastating” policy of Indigenous residential schools, saying the forced assimilation of Indigenous peoples into Christian society destroyed their cultures, severed their families and marginalized generations in ways still being felt today.

The Anish Corporation, an organization based in Swan Lake First Nation in Headingley, Man., that promotes health, wellness and emotional support for Indigenous peoples, held the viewing event on Monday on Peguis First Nation’s Portage Avenue property to ensure survivors were well supported.

“It’s really huge for survivors. I think they’ve been waiting for this for many, many years, and I hope it is something that moves them forward in their healing,” said the team leader, Eva Wilson-Fontaine.

“We want to continue to make sure that they’re not having to walk this road alone.”

Kitchekesik says she admires the Pope for coming to Canada to apologize in spite of his poor health, but felt that an apology would mean more if he hadn’t read a prepared speech.

She added that an apology is a just the start of the Catholic Church’s journey toward reconciliation.

Sagkeeng First Nation member George Abraham said the Holy See’s apology brought him right back to his days in residential school.

“I still remember what the priest’s office looked like and what the hallways looked like and the straps I had,” he said, pointing to a scar on his hand he says is a reminder of the physical abuse he suffered.

Abraham didn’t feel like the Pope’s apology was genuine, it was “just like the politicians do.”

Mary Courchene, a survivor of Fort Alexander Residential School from Sagkeeng First Nation, said the Pope’s apology brought her back to her childhood.

“It was deeply emotional hearing the leader of the Catholic church say directly to all of us, ‘I am deeply sorry,'” she said in an interview on CBC Manitoba’s Up to Speed on Monday.

“That sent me on a tailspin of emotions remembering going through that.”

Courchene says the discovery of potential unmarked graves at different former residential school sites in Canada is a stark reminder of the death toll of the institutions.

“I would have liked to hear him use the word genocide, because that’s a longstanding genocide that’s been [going] on here for over 500 years,” she said.

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation has documented 4,118 children who died at residential schools as part of its work to implement the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Call to Action 72 — to create a national death register and public-facing memorial register, but there are likely many more, the centre has said.

Wilson-Fontaine says this step in the truth and reconciliation process is important.

“We need to understand what took place. We need to start sitting with one another and having those conversations and listening to the truth,” she said.

“Unfortunately, I didn’t hear about it until I was 27 years old. I was a mother of two, and that’s when I first learned about Indian residential schools. So education is really key, coming and being with the people who experienced it and hearing their experiences and asking questions, that’s the only way you’re going to hear the truth.”

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools or by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

Mental health counselling and crisis support is also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat at www.hopeforwellness.ca.


Rachel Bergen is a journalist for CBC Manitoba and previously reported for CBC Saskatoon. Email story ideas to rachel.bergen@cbc.ca.