Now retired, Barbara White Andrews was Bishop of the Territory of the People from 2009 – 2020. She expressed her hopes and intentions about the Papal visit in an earlier post here.
When I left on my pilgrimage to witness Pope Francis’ historic apology to Canadian Residential School survivors, an “act of penance” for the role of the Roman Catholic Church in what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) called the cultural genocide of residential schools, I felt hopeful; I was open to hearing, and was willing to accept, the apology.
I am glad I went, as I was profoundly moved by the generous welcome from the people of Maskwacis, who prepared for this visit with such care and compassion. I was delighted by the wonderful display, for all the world to see, of the language, culture and traditions of the Treaty 6 people, who have shown their strength and determination to be the people Creator God called them to be, despite the years of inhumane treatment.
As I heard the words: “I am deeply sorry; I ask your forgiveness”… I felt a peace come over me. So many have longed to hear these words, from a church that was responsible for operating more than sixty percent of the Indian Residential and Day schools in Canada. I hoped that the trauma that members of my own family suffered within this system would be addressed; finally, we could continue to journey toward healing.
Sadly, I left still feeling disappointed, as the apology did not address the atrocities this system inflicted on my people. There was no mention of systemic assimilation policies; no naming of the abuses; no acknowledgment of sexual abuse; no admission of the lack of care for those who were sick. There was no apology for stripping the identity, language, and culture from Indigenous people. There was no admission of the spiritual harm done to generations of Indigenous children.
I longed to hear a full and complete apology. Such an apology would include the word genocide. I hoped with many others that the Doctrine of Discovery would be rescinded, as a specific and tangible action that would help Indigenous people recover a life of dignity as a proud, strong people again. This would have been an ideal time to return stolen relics now housed in the Vatican archives; now would have been a good time to abandon the on-going legal efforts of the Catholic Church to avoid paying the full, ordered compensation to survivors and their families.
The above comments notwithstanding, however, as I heard this less-than-complete apology, I was aware of the powerful and meaningful effect it did have on many who graciously received it, and who were making a choice to move forward with their healing journey.
At some points during the Pope’s apology, there was a profound silence that came over those gathered, given the intense and palpable emotions we were feeling. At other times, applause broke out, as a show of appreciation. But mostly, we listened respectfully, as we inwardly attempted to deal with the memories this moment triggered, as we recalled the suffering of so many at the hands of this particular church, especially as we remembered those who were forcibly removed from homes, family, and communities. We remembered those who never returned home from Residential School; we acknowledged the pain of parents and siblings who never knew what had happened to family members. I found myself focusing on the sacred bundles I carried with me, clutching them hard as I remembered for whom I came, and why I came to witness the apology. There were many special moments during the Maskwacis apology which remain with me now:
- The profound way that the Maskwacis people followed their own Indigenous protocols; with prayer, drumming, the honouring of elders and leaders, all in speech, dance, and in song.
- The moment the long red banner was brought into the centre of the gathering with the names of the children who never came home. It was hard to see, right in front of me, the list of children from St George’s Anglican Residential School in Lytton.
- The generous and respectful way that Chief Willie Littlechild gifted the Pope with his grandfather’s headdress, and the singing of the transfer song by elders. (All appropriate protocol was followed) Chief Littlechild gifted the world with an example of the human capacity to forgive, and to move forward. We will not forget what was done, but forgiveness is possible. The Pope’s reaction, and the reaction of those present, to his spontaneous appearance of genuine delight at the gesture was a very human moment. (Only after I left the day’s events, I learned that there was another very different, and equally strong and negative reaction to the idea of seeing the Pope receive yet another cultural artifact to add to the collection in the Vatican vaults.)
- The chilling and haunting song that SiPihKo sang to the tune of “O Canada” that captured the pain, the disappointment, and the deep emotion that many of us were feeling at that moment.
- If the apology truly fell short of a complete and full acknowledgment of the harm done to Indigenous people, it was however one small step along the journey to reconciliation.
Despite my disappointment following the Maskwacis apology, I next travelled to Edmonton to prepare for the pilgrimage at Lac Ste Anne on Tuesday, July 26th. Dressed in my new ribbon skirt, and carrying my bundles, I set off with my niece, hopeful that a fuller apology would be offered this day, as the Pope joined generations of Indigenous Spirit-seekers on a pilgrimage of prayer for healing alongside the Holy and Sacred waters. I was not able to get near the Lake due to the large crowds, so I watched on large screens, as the Pope offered prayers and a blessing of the water of Lac Ste Anne.
I listened carefully to his words, able to appreciate them as a fine sermon, one which acknowledged the role of parents, and grandparents (especially Grandmothers) as they teach and encourage spiritual practices which further the transmission of faith from one generation to the next. But again, sadly, the Pope’s message sounded church-centred –there wasno real acknowledgment of how churches and people of faith could follow the gospel message he proclaimed, and at the same time cause so much damage to so many people for generations to come.
I came away feeling that an opportunity had been missed by the Roman Catholic Church. At such a sacred spot, a Holy place, which for generations has provided a place of healing, a place visited by my father year after year, that naming and owning at this time the harm done to Indigenous people would have moved the reconciling journey forward in a helpful way.
The next day, on Wednesday morning, I made another very personal journey to the Alexander Reserve, and to the gravesites of many of my family. My daughter made bundles of flowers, which were placed on the graves of my parents, my brothers, and other family members. Standing over the graves, as I read some of the words offered by the Pope from his apology, I felt a deep anger rising in me, as I became profoundly aware of how shallow the Pope`s words were. For those who suffered the most from church-run schools, the words needed to name in depth and in detail the harm done by the church.
I came home with mixed feelings from my pilgrimage. I felt a deep sadness that a full, sincere and complete apology was not offered. On a positive note, the Pope did in fact draw world attention to the treatment of Indigenous People in Canada. His visit showcased the very best of our cultural and traditional ways. This gives me hope.
The Pope called the entire Roman Catholic Church in Canada to come together, to work at setting right at least some of the harm done by the policies of the church, all this in addition to investigating and naming the sinister behaviour of some teachers, administrators and other school staff. Calling on Archbishops, Bishops, Priests, Deacons, Religious Orders, and all laity, he challenged everyone to put reconciliation at the centre of their ministry in Canada. I hope that the local Roman Catholic Church throughout the interior of British Columbia will look to other churches including my own, who have long ago apologized, as an example and inspiration, as we all continue the task of journeying on a new path of reconciliation and atoning for the spiritual harm done.
Churches like the Anglican Church of Canada have much to offer from our own experience. We also continue to face into the horror of the effects of our own involvement in the Residential Schools. Such confrontation has caused us to take a different path towards a better relationship between settlers and Indigenous peoples. Numerous Canadian Anglican apologies, the payment of our commitment to the All-Parties Settlement agreement, the establishment of healing funds, and the willingness to turn over all records to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, without reservation and in a timely manner, all these with the encouragement of the emerging self-governing Indigenous Anglican church are important steps along the reconciliation journey.
Sadly, it was only on his trip home, talking to journalists in-flight, that the Pope finally acknowledged the genocide that churches and governments inflicted on Indigenous peoples. It would have meant so much more, had he used that word while facing the people who still live with the harm done. Words spoken by the Pope on leaving Canada show that he learned much from his time with Indigenous People. Indeed, it seems he was not well briefed prior to departure. He is a deeply spiritual man, who listens. On his return to Rome he reflected: “The Catholic Church has to face up to its responsibility for institutions that abused children and tried to erase Indigenous Culture.”
I am grateful for all the prayerful support and messages of encouragement sent to me by so many friends and colleagues from all across Canada. I am most especially grateful to Ken and Kathie Gray, for taking the time to help me prepare, both with my ribbon skirt and through encouragement, and also for assistance in helping me shape my story, as I sorted out all my hesitations and emotions as I set out.
The gospel was proclaimed, but not by the Roman Catholic Church; rather it was the Indigenous community who showed us the Gospel message, by the unconditional love and acceptance, respect, care, kindness, generosity, and humility on display throughout the Papal visit.
Thank you. Bishop Barbara has expressed many of the disappointments that I have felt about the Pope’s ‘apology’. I am bewildered that the Media has not mentioned these disappointments. Time may tell. Canon Dan K