Warning: This story deals with disturbing subject matter that may upset and trigger some readers. Discretion is advised.
Ivan Paul, who goes by the name Tully, vividly remembers the day the “Indian agent” came to take him from his home at Metepenagiag Mi’kmaq Nation in New Brunswick. He was five years old, and having grown up “in the bush,” said he had never seen such a large vehicle in his life.
He recalled his father tried to fight the “tall white guy.” As a survivor of Nova Scotia’s Shubenacadie Indian Residential School, his father knew exactly what awaited his children there, Tully said.
The RCMP were eventually called, and he and five siblings were taken.
“When we got to the train station — not knowing this was a train, it was a big iron monster — we were looking out the window, and we were crying,” he said in an interview at a hotel lounge in Quebec City.
“My mother was standing outside. She was crying. It was the scariest thing ever as a child.”
They were “kidnapped” and imprisoned at the institution at the same time, he said, and attended the historic papal tour of Canada together “as family.”
“We are giving back all that pain to the Pope, to the cardinals, to the government,” he explained, as he sat in a circle with the other survivors at the hotel last week.
“We’re not going to carry that pain no more. We don’t need that. They brought it on us.”
Between 1870 and 1996, more than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were torn from their families and forced to attend one of Canada’s 139 residential schools. The horrific state- and church-sponsored system of assimilation sought to erase Indigenous languages, beliefs and practices.
About 60 per cent of the institutions were run by the Catholic Church, and within their walls, countless thousands of children were subjected to physical, spiritual and sexual violence at the hands of the priests and nuns charged with their care.
An unknown number of children never returned home, having died from malnutrition, disease, neglect or abuse. Across Canada, ground-penetrating radar has detected some of their suspected remains at more than 2,000 unmarked burial sites near former residential school grounds.
At the hotel, Elder Vaughn Nicholas said he never witnessed any children being buried at the Shubenacadie residential school, but said he heard “stories” of little ones — including babies — going missing.
“Now the whole world knows what Canada and the Church did to our people,” he told Global News, looking up from beneath a beaded ballcap, a hand-carved wooden walking cane in his hands.
“Survivors from across Canada — we’re a family. When one hurts, we all hurt.”
Nicholas, of Tobique First Nation in eastern New Brunswick, described Shubenacadie — the only residential school in the Maritimes — as “hell.”
“If they didn’t have a strap, they’d use a pointer, maybe as thick as this,” he described, lifting up his wooden cane. “There was no spankings there. There was beatings.”
It was worse for others, he added. Brought to the institution at the age of eight, he said, he was only beaten every other day and was never sexually abused.
He did recall being asked to “bend over” by a nun who was inspecting the boys after showers, and being told he hadn’t done a good enough job scrubbing. He was beaten, he said.
Sitting across from Nicholas at the table, Virginia Jacques Bear shuddered.
She did not share what she went through at Shubenacadie, where she was sent at the age of eight, but said she “wouldn’t wish it” on her worst enemy. Wearing the orange of the Every Child Matters campaign, the Tobique First Nation woman described the Pope’s visit as “a bunch of bull—t.”
“To me, it’s just another ploy. This is going to keep going on and on until there’s nobody here to fight and argue anymore,” she said. “I need some kind of — I don’t know how to say it in English, I can say it in my own language — I need something.”
Maliseet language keeper Imelda Perley, who helped organize the New Brunswick delegation, suggested the word wolamsotuwakon, which means “a belief in truth.”
Jacques Bear nodded.
In the first half of his visit, the survivors told Global News, Pope Francis did not acknowledge the full “truth” of residential schools and the Catholic Church’s part in them.
“(The Pope’s) only saying that a few bad apples did this to the Indian children,” Nicholas said, clutching his cane tightly. “For a hundred years, they did that.”
Tully agreed. He spoke of receiving 30 lashes at Shubenacadie for speaking a single word of Mi’kmaw, and of being beaten after getting lost while on a school outing.
When a white family who’d be passing by brought him back, he said the priests and nuns assumed he had tried to escape. Unable to speak English, he said, he never understood why he was beaten.
“This is truth and reconciliation,” Tully said, a beaded eagle twinkling on a medallion against his black and blue ribbon shirt.
“We can give this all back — mentally, spiritually, physically, emotionally — back to them. Let them carry it for the next hundred years.”
The survivors attended the Pope’s mass at the National Shrine of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré last Thursday, while young people from Tobique First Nation tended to a sacred fire back in their community.
The youth offered candy to the flames for the children at residential schools who never got candy, Perley said, and placed prayer ties on a recently planted tree — a representation of life for those whose lives were stolen.
“They tried to cut our tree down, but today we showed we’re still standing,” said Perley, offering a metaphor to the survivors at the table. “We’re still rooted and we’re going to stay rooted for that next generation.
“All of your stories are going to be echoes for the next generation and that’s how you’re going to give medicine that was taken away from you back.”
Pope Francis returned to Rome last Friday after his six-day “penitential pilgrimage” in Alberta, Quebec and Nunavut, where he spoke with survivors, chiefs, the prime minister, the governor general, and church officials, and promised a new era of reconciliation between the Catholic Church and Indigenous Peoples.
Reflecting on the visit during his weekly general audience from the Vatican on Wednesday, he said he felt the pain of survivors who shared their stories, particularly in Iqaluit.
“I assure you that in these meetings, especially the last one, I had to feel the pain of these people, like slaps — how they lost (so much), how the elderly lost their children and did not know where they ended up, because of this policy of assimilation,” the pontiff said in unscripted remarks.
“It was a very painful moment but we had to face up. We have to face up before our errors and our sins.”
After leaving Canada, on a chartered plane back to Rome last Saturday, Pope Francis made an unexpected remark — labelling what happened in residential schools as “genocide.” Responding to a journalist’s question, he said the word hadn’t come to mind during his visit, but that he had described it.
Asked whether those comments changed his perspective, Nicholas said he believes the pontiff has now embraced the truth, even if justice has not been served.
“Him mentioning that is part of accountability of what they did to us … but just saying sorry is not enough. You have to follow that with action,” he told Global News at a resiliency celebration feast in Tobique First Nation on Sunday.
Survivors have called on the Catholic Church to release all residential school records in its possession, return stolen land to Indigenous Peoples, and fund healing programs for survivors, their families, and communities.
They have also called on the Pope to rebuke the Doctrine of Discovery, a legal concept that was used to justify the displacement and enslavement of non-Christian peoples by early European explorers. It was based on a 15th-century papal decree.
Speaking to Global News on Sunday, Regina Archbishop Don Bolen said it’s clear Pope Francis’ apology needs to “move to action” that is “coherent” and grounded in Indigenous rights, but that Vatican officials are unlikely to lead the action.
“There are 1.2 billion Catholics, more than half of whom live in poverty in developing nations,” Bolen said. “The Vatican can only entrust that ongoing work to the Catholic Church in Canada. It can’t coordinate the building of relationships out of Rome.”
Pope Francis did not address the Doctrine of Discovery while in Canada, but the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops has said it’s seeking a new statement from the Vatican on the framework. Meanwhile, the group is working to raise $30 million for reconciliation initiatives, and is supporting the retrieval of residential school documents from around the world.
“The real change is going to come when it comes on a local level, and I’ve experienced that in the Archdiocese of Regina over the last few years, where we established a truth and reconciliation committee locally,” Bolen said.
“We’re meeting with different First Nations communities. We’re in regular conversation with survivors to say, ‘How do we walk together in our place? What does it mean to work together between the Catholic Church and Cowessess First Nation?’ It’s not about the pope.”
Bolen, who accompanied the historic Indigenous delegation to the Vatican in the spring, has apologized for residential schools several times in his life and has said he will continue to do so.
He recognized the papal visit “did not resolve all questions” or “answer every concern,” but said he hopes the church is on a “different page” with Indigenous Peoples now.
“I talked to survivors who said, ‘I can start to move towards closure now,’ so my joy is an extension of the relief that at least some survivors are feeling,” he told Global News.
“Clearly, not everybody is at the same place. When you’re deeply wounded and traumatized, you don’t respond collectively … but many yearned for this and many said, ‘I needed to hear those words and now I can move on.’ So for that, I am just profoundly grateful.”
– With files from Reuters
The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line (1-800-721-0066) is available 24 hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience.
The Hope for Wellness Help Line offers culturally competent counselling and crisis intervention to all Indigenous Peoples experiencing trauma, distress, strong emotions and painful memories. The line can be reached anytime toll-free at 1-855-242-3310.