Pope Francis with a Canadian Indigenous Community Member (photo courtesy of Campion College at the University of Regina)

On April 1, 2022, Pope Francis offered an apology to a group of Canadian residential school survivors who were visiting the Vatican. Three months later, from July 24 to 29, the pontiff traveled to three locations in Canada (Edmonton, Québec City and Iqaluit) to deliver a fulsome apology on Canadian soil that fulfilled #58 from the Canadian government’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action. It was a visit that stirred up many emotions for survivors, but also brought hope that it would signal a positive step toward reconciliation.

In June 2021, the Canadian Parliament created the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation as a federal statutory holiday, which falls on September 30 every year. This day is also known as Orange Shirt Day, which has the mandate of “Every Child Matters.”

Shortly before the Pope’s visit to Canada in July, Susan Beaudin, Co-Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC) for the Archdiocese of Regina in Saskatchewan, Canada (and a survivor of residential schools) sat down with Campion College alumna and TRC advocate Leah Perrault (BA’02). They discussed the significance of the event and what it means to many Canadian Indigenous peoples.

Perhaps we should first introduce ourselves and explain why we have become invested in TRC work:
: I am a member of the Cowessess First Nation. I am a survivor of residential school abuse, as were my parents and grandparents. I am an educator who speaks and writes about the great harm experienced by Indigenous children who attended Catholic-run residential schools. This has created immense trauma that continues to negatively affect the lives of Indigenous people. I am currently a member of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee at the Archdiocese of Regina.

Leah: Each of my great-grandparents came from a different country than their partner. Seven came from different parts of Europe and one was from the Cree nation in Canada. Overwhelmingly, the settler experience is what was passed along to me. Then, I pursued a life and career deeply invested in faith in the Roman Catholic Church, and it didn’t take long for me to realize how the Church hurt Indigenous peoples and communities past and present. I want to be a part of the truth-telling and reconciling that is necessary for our respective communities and for my own healing.

Susan Beaudin (photo courtesy of Campion College)  

What was the main purpose of the papal visit to Canada?
Susan: In May 2021, Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc used ground penetrating radar to discover the buried remains of an estimated 215 children in unmarked graves at the site of the former Kamloops Catholic-run residential school in British Columbia. News of the discovery (including in The New York Times) caused the general public to demand answers from the Catholic Church. Soon after, Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan revealed it had found 751 unmarked graves on the site of the former Marieval Residential School. The numbers have continued to grow. Indigenous people knew about many children who never returned home and have repeatedly asked the Church to provide documents that show what happened to them. The Church worked with the Canadian government to take children from their homes against the will of their parents. These children were subjected to many abuses, neglect, and unsafe living conditions. They could not speak their native languages or practice their cultural traditions.

The purpose of Pope Francis’ visit was to apologize to Indigenous peoples for the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of Indigenous children in Catholic-run residential schools. Indigenous peoples want more than an apology. They want real actions on how the Catholic Church is going to make reparations to Indigenous peoples for healing and the revitalization of their languages and cultures.

Leah: My faith has taught me that our actions are as and often more important than our words. When survivors tell us what is needed, I believe it is imperative to listen. The calls to action asked for a papal apology on traditional lands: this visit fulfills the call and shows leadership and expectation for Catholics to show up for the relationships and work of reconciliation.

How will the apology promote a better understanding between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples?
Susan: The public apology from Pope Francis confirmed the central role that the Church played in the atrocities, the recognition of the trauma, and negative impacts that continue today. This will promote a greater understanding about Indigenous peoples, which will lead to a path toward healing and reconciliation.

Leah Perrault (photo courtesy of Campion College)  

Leah: I hope that Pope Francis’ example will inspire Catholics across the country to make a commitment to walking together. Too often, the work is left to just a few; the harms have impacted all of us, and so the healing work is essential for each of us, too.

Why is this understanding important to the work of TRC?
Susan: The work toward reconciliation will be a hard but rewarding journey. Education is a key component to reconciling. We must be open-minded and have good hearts to journey together. Reconciliation will happen if people are committed to developing right relationships with Indigenous people for the betterment of all Canadians.

Leah: Reconciliation is a relational reality. We need to hear each other’s stories, see where we have benefitted from others’ suffering, where we ourselves have suffered, and face what has been destructive. Then our relationships can be marked by a reconciled way of walking and working together in creation. We have a long way to go after an apology.

How can we offer support?
Susan: We can begin by educating ourselves about the Indian Residential Schools and how the harmful effects continue to impact Indigenous individuals, families and communities, and why it was important for survivors to hear an apology from the Pope. We must also educate ourselves about Indigenous history, languages, cultures, and the beauty of their spiritual beliefs, values, and cultural traditions.

Contributed by Shannon Kotylak, Director of Marketing and Communications, Campion College at the University of Regina