Residential school survivors still waiting for next steps a year after papal visit | CBC News

When Piita Irniq picked up his handmade wooden drum to perform for Pope Francis last year in Iqaluit, he was reclaiming an Inuit tradition that the Roman Catholic Church tried to erase through its residential schools.

“I wanted him to know that this is what you cut off as part of colonialism,” Irniq said.

“You thought it was a witchcraft. You thought it was a pagan religion when, in fact, drum dancing has always been a celebration of life.”

One year later, Irniq and many other residential school survivors are still waiting for the Roman Catholic Church to outline the next steps it wants to take in repairing its relationships with Indigenous Peoples.

“Nobody has been in touch with me from the church,” Irniq said. “It’s rather disappointing.”

After performing a drum dance, residential school survivor Piita Irniq presents his drum to Pope Francis in the square outside Nakasuk Elementary School in Iqaluit on July 29, 2022. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

During an open air mass last year at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium, Canada’s Catholic bishops made a pledge to Pope Francis.

“The bishops of Canada are fully committed to walking together with the First Nations, Métis and Inuit Peoples,” Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith said during the July 26 event.

Although some work has been done, there is still no cohesive national plan from the bishops for working with Indigenous Peoples on reconciliation.

‘The Vatican used us’

Ted Quewezance, a residential school survivor from the Keeseekoose First Nation in Saskatchewan, said he personally accepted the Pope’s apology for residential schools when he delivered it on Canadian soil in Edmonton. That came after an initial apology made in Rome.

Quewezance said he tried at first to remain optimistic about residential school survivors’ prospects for working with the church on reconciliation, but has only grown more frustrated since.

“I really feel I’ve been used as an individual,” Quewezance said.

“The government used us. The Vatican used us. The bishops used us … There’s not a peep out of them. It’s silence.”

Piita Irniq, a residential school survivor and Inuit cultural teacher, says it's time for the Roman Catholic Church to make a move on reconciliation.
Piita Irniq, a residential school survivor and Inuit cultural teacher, says it’s disappointing that no one from the Roman Catholic Church has been in touch since last year’s papal visit. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

Quewezance said he hasn’t been able to meet with the bishops to develop a plan for how the church can move forward with survivors and address reconciliation.

“I don’t think it really helped our survivors or First Nations across the country,” Quewezance said.

“It’s the same old, same old. It’s everybody protecting their own liability.”

Residential school survivor Ted Quewezance says he feels used by the Roman Catholic Church.
Ted Quewezance, former chief of the Keeseekoose First Nation, wants Canadian Catholic Bishops to work with residential school survivors like him on a post-papal visit plan. (Alexander Quon/CBC)

Although conversations have taken place between Canadian Catholic Bishops, Indigenous leaders and survivors, there have not been any official follow-ups since the papal visit.

The bishops have invited national Indigenous leaders for a meeting but it hasn’t taken place yet due to scheduling issues.

Bishops ‘committed’ to working with Indigenous people

Archbishop Smith, who oversaw the papal visit, said the work is going to take time but he remains committed to seeing it through.

“The Pope himself said that the journey is going to take a long time,” Smith said.

“His visit was important, but one step … I’m certainly excited and looking forward to walking that journey.”

Smith said progress is being made at the local level.

A man holds a bowl.
Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith said the Pope’s visit was the first step in a long journey towards reconciliation. (Jessie Wardarski/The Associated Press)

At the Sacred Heart Catholic Church of the First Peoples in Edmonton, which Pope Francis visited, cultural workshops have started between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

The bishops are working with archivists on releasing more residential school documents through a new national committee, said Smith.

He said they have raised $10 million out of a promised $30 million for reconciliation efforts, including language revitalization.

Smith said that in Edmonton, an Indigenous-led committee is asking for applications to find ways to distribute their portion of the money.

“What is key is for the bishop to show up locally, meet with Indigenous leadership,” Smith said.

“It could well be that that takes different amounts of time in local areas, depending upon mutual availability, depending upon resources and these sorts of things. But to me, it’s absolutely clear that the bishops are committed to doing this.”

Unaddressed demands

Smith said he’s encouraged by the work underway. Others say progress has been too slow.

“Just having an apology without action to help the current generations of the residential school survivors and their children is overall inappropriate,” said Chelsea Brunelle, a member of Batchewana First Nation in northern Ontario.

“It’s not the right way to go about reconciliation between the survivors and ancestors and current generations of genocide because we still live in a colonial society and we are still suffering.”

Brunelle unfurled a large banner that said “Rescind the Doctrine” at a mass the Pope led outside Quebec City last year. She and her cousin Sarain Fox were honouring their great-aunt Mary Bell, a survivor of the Spanish Indian Residential School.

The banner is a reference to the Doctrine of Discovery, which is inspired by centuries-old papal bulls that justified the colonization, conversion and enslavement of non-Christians and the seizure of their lands. Scholars say the doctrine laid the foundation for Canada’s claim to Indigenous lands and the Indian Act.

Last spring, the Vatican repudiated the doctrine by issuing a new statement.

Brunelle said it’s not enough.

“There still isn’t any plan to rescind the Doctrine of Discovery,” Brunelle said. “That’s what I would still request a year later.”

Batchewana First Nation members Chelsea Brunelle and Sarain Fox unveiled a banner on July 28, 2022 during a mass led by Pope Francis near Quebec City.
Batchewana First Nation members Chelsea Brunelle and Sarain Fox unfurl a banner ahead of a mass at Saint Anne de Beaupre Basillica. (Sarah Levitt/CBC/Radio-Canada)

Last year, Irniq asked Pope Francis to personally intervene in the case of Johannes Rivoire, a former Oblate priest who faces charges of sexual assault in Canada.

“They have to get that man back to Canada,” Irniq said. “Not doing anything is re-victimizing Rivoire’s victims in Canada. That is not acceptable.”

Despite international pressure led by Inuit, France is not extraditing Rivoire and it’s not clear if Pope Francis has done anything to help in the case.

Even though there are still many demands left unaddressed, Irniq said he still feels inspired by the Pope’s historic apology.

Now is the time, he said, for the church to work with residential school survivors on supporting victims of sexual abuse, promoting Indigenous culture and traditions, revitalizing Indigenous languages and making good on promises of financial support.

“I am willing. Inuit are willing to move forward with healing and reconciliation with the church,” Irniq said.

“It’s your move. It’s time for you to make a move … There is no other way of doing it.”

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