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As Pope completes pilgrimage to Alberta lake, many Indigenous people are anxious for more answers


As Pope completes pilgrimage to Alberta lake, many Indigenous people are anxious for more answers

LAC STE. ANNE, Alta.—The Pope paused on the dock in the slanted evening sun, taking a moment of reflection at the spot where people have come to meet, to pray and to heal for generations, the still lake waters mere feet from the locked wheels of his chair.

It was a somewhat unexpected moment, as no one had seemed sure in advance how close Francis, grappling with knee problems and advancing age, would get to the water at Lac Ste. Anne, a warm and sprawling lake in the middle of the Alberta prairie that welcomes a pilgrimage every July.

He went ahead and rolled down. It was one of the rare solo moments Francis has carved out on this trip, having travelled halfway around the world to see for himself the sites where schools once stood and the communities still recovering from them. And just hours earlier, he had said mass for about 50,000 people at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium, where it was equal parts solemn religious service and landmark public event.

On the third day of his visit to Canada, it became clear that no matter how earnest he may seem, the scrutiny over what his apology Monday meant, and what comes next, continues to grow.

Criticism of the apology from prominent voices Tuesday, including the former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, only added to that scrutiny.

“Despite the historic apology, the Holy Father’s statement has left a deep hole in the acknowledgment of the full role of the church in the residential school system by placing blame on individual members of the church,” Murray Sinclair, former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission into residential schools, said in a blistering statement.

At Lac Ste. Anne, Tera Cardinal sat in the hot midsummer sun for three hours to ensure she had a spot to see Francis when he appeared, waiting behind the fence erected in recent days to separate the Pope from the pilgrims who, in many cases, have been coming at the end of July since they were young children.

“It feels better, my soul feels better,” she said, speaking minutes after the Pope had returned back up the path paved in anticipation of this very moment. “I was raised by a residential school survivor. So it does leave me with questions about how my grandmother would feel with that.”

She appreciated the apology, she said, coming from a church that is traditional and slow to change. As someone who considers herself a Catholic, when she had imagined what it would feel like to see the Pope on these lands, she didn’t think she would mind — but that hadn’t been the case.

“I thought it’d be easier,” she said, touching a hand to her chest. “Seeing him on these lands, something felt conflicting, something in me that I don’t really know how I feel,” she said. “I think I’m going to be thinking about that for the next couple days.”

She understood that due to the Pope’s health, he wasn’t able to come speak to the elders who had prayed for this directly, but she had heard comments in the crowd that most of the bishops and cardinals, who had all walked down to the lake under their own power, hadn’t either, save for one.

Francis’s visit to the lake came a day after his emotional and historic apology for the trauma inflicted by the residential schools that were once predominantly run by the men and women who had devoted their lives to his church.

His tightly orchestrated schedule has him reboarding his bright blue papal plane Wednesday morning and flying to Quebec, where he will spend two days in the country’s Catholic heartland, but the debate about what his words meant, and what comes next, isn’t going anywhere.

Many who have seen him say Francis seems sincere, his knack for people evident in the way he lights up around the small children who bring him gifts, the way he beams when he waves from the popemobile, the fact that he was expected to use a golf cart or popemobile to reach the lake, but tackled it in a wheelchair instead.

But as much as his apology has been an emotional salve for many who have yearned for it for decades, for many others, the words don’t go far enough to appease the wounds of the many First Nation, Métis and Inuit people who still bear the scars of a school system that even when it wasn’t physically abusive, worked to sever all ties to family and culture.

The Pope’s apology to residential school survivors didn’t go far enough, Sinclair said.

The former senator said the apology to survivors was important and could be a factor in helping victims recover from the traumas they have suffered. But he said Francis’s words fall short of the call in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report that the church go beyond apologizing for the actions of individual priests and nuns sent to run the schools.

Sinclair had timed the statement for when Francis was holding his first landmark and large-scale gathering on Canadian soil on Tuesday morning; an open-air mass at Commonwealth Stadium, which usually hosts the Canadian Football League’s Edmonton Elks.

The mass drew a mixed crowd, as many people had come to see the 266th Bishop of Rome in suits and their Sunday best, while others embraced the summer weather and outdoor seating in shorts and sandals, as vendors hawked hats and T-shirts with the papal visit logo.

Notably, an elderly priest heard confession outside the shuttered beer gardens in the stadium’s concourse. Although the stadium had sold out tickets for its roughly 60,000 seats, there were many empty spots visible, with organizers saying that many people had not shown up.


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Addressing the crowd, Francis had urged the thousands who gathered to reflect and appreciate the interconnectedness of ancestors and on the future, an approach that struck some as odd, coming a day after so publicly expressing regret for the ways in which the residential school system broke those very family ties for generations of Indigenous students.

“We are children of a history that needs to be preserved,” he said, speaking in Spanish, with a translator. “We are not isolated individuals, islands. No one comes into this world detached from others.”

There were no direct acknowledgments of the apology he’d delivered in the small First Nations community of Maskwacis, Alta., less than a day earlier. Many of the people who had reserved tickets online, passed through a rigorous security screening and took a bleacher seat had been drawn by the promise of long-awaited accountability from the church.

Shortly before the Pope arrived, Dave Antoine, from the Shuswap Tribal Council’s area, was crossing a busy concourse with his family as they made their way across a bustling concourse. They had made the eight-hour drive from their home in British Columbia, arriving late the night before.

Antoine is not Catholic, but he is a residential school survivor. He was taken to school at age five and stayed for nine years, in what he called a “rough, rough situation.” To him, the Pope’s presence offers possible closure.

“Eight, nine years ago, they compensated us, but money’s nothing to First Nations. All it did is bury it, the hurt,” he said. “I think this event is a starting point for not only the Pope, but all levels of government to understand how much we carried around all our lives.”

To make true progress in reconciling the church and Indigenous peoples, Sinclair argued that the Pope must renounce the 15th-century papal bulls — edicts which underpin the Doctrine of Discovery, a legal principle granting European explorers the right to claim and exploit discovered lands where non-Christians were found to be residing.

“While an apology has been made, that same doctrine is in place,” Sinclair said. “The Pope and the church remain silent on the most problematic tenets of its belief system: that Indigenous peoples in Canada and around the world should not have the right to practise their own faith, cultures, and traditions.”

Out at Lac Ste. Anne, that argument was echoed by Cardinal, who said it would signal that the apology had been a stepping stone to real change.

But the other thing she said she’d like to see is forgiveness — “not in terms of the Catholic Church but towards each other,” she added.

“A lot of us are mad that he’s even on this territory and I totally understand that. But at the same time, we have to let those who want the apology have the apology,” she said.

“We have to accept those who need this and who view this as a step for tomorrow. But we also have to support those who feel anger and sadness; they’re allowed to feel that.”

Gabrielle Fayant isn’t Catholic, but she had come to see the Pope because she wanted to stand in place of her family members who couldn’t.

Many of the grandmas and aunties in her family from the Fishing Lake Métis Settlement were too old or sick to come today, so Fayant had made the trip from Ottawa, she said. Before she’d come, she had talked to one of her aunties who isn’t well. “I asked her, what do you want me to tell the Pope when I go over there? And she was like, ‘tell him to smarten up,’ ” she recalled with a laugh.

The past few days have been a painful reckoning with the past, she says. But here, in this place where people have come to heal for generations, it’s a story of hope, too.

“Our whole family is run by the women, so it’s the least we could do for everything that they’ve given to us,” she says of the time she spent waiting for the Pope to show up. “They, of course, have their traumas that they passed onto us, but they did the best with what they,” she said.

“We’re the generation that’s breaking the cycle now.”

With files from Allan Woods

The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line is available 24-hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of a residential school experience. Support is available at 1-866-925-4419.

Alex Boyd is a Calgary-based reporter for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @alex_n_boyd

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