Pope Francis’ recent visit to Canada to apologize for the impacts of residential schools and colonization on the country’s Indigenous, Inuit and Métis people isn’t sitting well with some in Stoney Nakoda First Nation, a week after his departure.
Jeanette Wildman, a resident of Mînî Thnî (Morley) and survivor of the Morley Indian Residential School, feels the Pope’s cross-country tour did little or nothing to help heal the generational wounds inflicted upon the Stoney Nakoda people by the residential school system.
“He’s come and gone, but what was the purpose?” asked Wildman. “I don’t feel it was an apology to everyone – there are many branches of the Catholic Church and yet the Pope was the only one delivering this apology.”
The Morley Indian Residential School, which was originally built to accommodate up to 60 students, opened its doors in 1926 and closed in 1969. The building was built and owned by the federal government but managed by the United Church, the largest Protestant Christianity denomination in Canada and the second-largest Canadian Christian denomination after the Catholic Church.
One of the 94 calls to action put forward by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada in 2015, calls upon the Pope “to issue an apology to survivors, their families and communities for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit and Métis children in catholic-run residential schools.”
Wildman said she believes the apology was incomplete in more ways than one and that Stoney Nakoda First Nation wasn’t represented without mention of the United Church, or any of the other many denominations of Christianity responsible for their role in residential schools and colonization.
“I didn’t see any head of the United Church stand beside him,” she said. “I appreciate him coming here to our lands to apologize but to be honest, I didn’t see that intent within.”
Wildman said that while the subject matter of his visit wasn’t to be taken lightly, she didn’t appreciate what she observed as a hard-nosed demeanor from Pope Francis throughout his trip.
“Being a man of God, being amongst Indigenous peoples for this reason – where is that face you’re supposed to show which holds the light, the compassion, the empathy? Where was that face? He always had a stern expression except for when he was around children,” she said.
As a second-generation residential school survivor, Wildman said the traumatic effects still linger in her family long after both she and her late mother exited the institutions they were placed in.
The experience led Wildman down a path to alcoholism – an addiction she was only able to address once she was able to identify why she felt the way she did and why she was using alcohol as a coping mechanism. All roads led back to her time in residential school and the mistreatment she endured.
“The teachers and the supervisors at the school inflicted abuse on us, and that’s all we were taught, that’s all we saw. We thought it was the norm to pick on other human beings or not to show love or care and compassion,” she said.
When she did live with her parents, before being placed in a residential school at the age of four, and after the age of 12 when she left – Wildman found herself wondering why her mother and father never said, ‘I love you.’ The idea of love wasn’t lost on her despite not being shown any at the school during many of her formative years.
She added her parents showed her love and took care of her and her siblings when they were home, but Wildman couldn’t understand why she never heard those three words until she started her own family and found herself forming some of the same habits as her parents.
“If I could turn back time to when I started my own family, when my oldest son was born, I would have said, ‘I love you, I am proud of you,’” she said. “But the truth is, we weren’t taught that at a time when we should have been while in residential school. We endured cruelty instead, and it’s had a ripple effect on our child-rearing.”
The Pope’s apology, Wildman added, was largely devoid of acknowledging the truth of what took place in some of the schools, including sexual abuse toward Indigenous children.
“It would have been nice if he had at least acknowledged some of the horrific things that took place against both Indigenous males and females,” she said. “It’s a very delicate area, but this is a critical piece of knowing the truth of what happened and talking about it.”
The fact that the Pope did not publicly rescind the Doctrine of Discovery during his visit, despite clear calls to do so, is another issue Wildman takes with his ask for forgiveness on behalf of all Christians.
In the 14th and 15th centuries, the doctrine, which originated from a series of Papal Bulls – official declarations used by the Pope as a representative of God’s power on Earth – was used to support the idea that Europeans could claim land not belonging to them, paving the way for the Indian Act and residential schools.
“They used the doctrine to impose Christianity on Indigenous peoples and take away our lands,” said Wildman. “If he had responded to calls to rescind it, I think his visit would have held a greater symbolic value for our people.”
The Stoney Nakoda community’s response has been largely the same in reaction to Chief Wilton Littlechild’s gesture of bestowing Pope Francis with a traditional headdress while visiting Maskwacis, Alta. early in his visit last week.
Kenny Hunter is a resident of Mînî Thnî and said he feels the act was inappropriate given the cultural significance of the revered piece of regalia.
“I think many of us thought he wasn’t worthy to receive that,” said Hunter. “Maybe a single eagle feather would have been more appropriate. But then again, people from other nations, especially with Catholic backgrounds, might’ve been in support of that.
“I don’t know anyone in our community that was.”
Wildman said she feels the same.
“That headdress went back to the Vatican with him and is going to sit in some museum,” she said. “They aren’t showpieces and what did he earn to get that headdress?”
Historically, a headdress (also called a warbonnet) is worn by Native American leaders, war chiefs and warriors as a symbol of respect.
“[The Pope] came to Canada, landed and said I’m sorry on behalf of all Christians and right away gets a headdress … what is the significance in that?” Wildman questioned. “It undermines those that are worthy of wearing one.”
While she hopes Pope Francis’ apology was able to pave a road to reparations for some, Wildman said she feels the visit was of no real help to her and many in her community.
In Hunter’s words: “the pope’s visit and apology meant a lot to some, and it didn’t mean anything to some."