From healing to disappointment, here’s what a papal apology could mean for residential school survivors

Warning: This story deals with disturbing subject matter that may upset and trigger some readers. Discretion is advised.

For the first time in four years Evelyn Korkmaz has been unable to travel to the Vatican.

Until the pandemic, she flew to the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church annually to ask Pope Francis to apologize for its role in Canada’s harrowing residential school system.

She’s never received a response — let alone an audience — but it’s never stopped the survivor of northern Ontario’s St. Anne’s residential school from trying.

It’s a tradition for the Fort Albany First Nation woman, who was once taught to lower her head when a priest or bishop walked by as a sign of obedience and respect.

“My motivation is to not allow any other child to go through what I went through,” said Korkmaz from her Ottawa home.

“There’s a reason I’m still standing and this might be it — maybe I’ll strike a chord one day.”

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Evelyn Korkmaz, a founding member of the group Ending Clergy Abuse, represents residential school survivors at United Nations meeting in Geneva on Feb. 18, 2020. Courtesy: Evelyn Korkmaz

Read more: Indigenous delegation delays Vatican trip due to Omicron COVID-19 variant, says AFN Chief

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Other survivors were set to make their own expedition to Rome this month, but they too have been held back by concerns about COVID-19.

After years of pressure from survivors and their families the Holy Father seems poised to make an official apology, and his press office confirmed in October his “willingness” to make “an apostolic journey to Canada” after the delegation concludes.

Whether that happens now or many months from now, survivors have been clear that a papal apology alone does not constitute ‘reconciliation.’ The road to healing is long and incremental, and they say the Holy Father’s commitment must reflect that.

Experts on the Vatican, however, suggest that if Indigenous peoples want redress from Rome — spiritual or financial — they may be disappointed. They say even Pope Francis, leader of a city-state and more than 1.3 billion Catholics in five continents, has limits.

If the goal of an apology is acceptance, healing, and eventually, forgiveness, survivors say the Holy Father must consider those limits carefully if and when he does decide to apologize.

Praying for an apology from Rome

Rose Prosper could accept an apology from the pope, but she isn’t prepared to forgive.

The Mi’kmaw survivor was taken away from the stunning lowlands of We’koqma’q First Nation and placed in Shubenacadie Residential School in 1960.

The Nova Scotia facility was one of 139 state and church-run institutions that forcibly removed more than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children from their families with the goal of eradicating their Indigenous identities. Nearly three quarters were run by the Roman Catholic Church.

Many of the children were physically, sexually and spiritually abused by priests and nuns. Some were starved as part of scientific experiments on the effects of malnutrition. Countless died in the intervening decades.

This year, the confirmation of more than 1,000 unmarked burial sites on former residential school grounds sent shockwaves of grief and anger across the country.

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Prosper was one of the last students to attend “Shubie School” as it closed in 1967. Separated from her siblings, she was beaten so badly that by the time she was 10 years old, she “couldn’t feel anything anymore.”

In 2008, she watched former prime minister Stephen Harper apologize for the government’s part on television with other survivors in Halifax. Since then, in her nightly prayers, she has prayed Pope Francis will do the same.

“I wasn’t ready to accept it then, I didn’t believe [Harper],” said Prosper.

“But I thought about it for a long time after that. I think it’s a good thing to hear it from the pope himself … The pope is the head of the Church.”

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Rose Marie Prosper is seen at the Shubenacadie Residential School in Nova Scotia, which she attended until its closure in 1967. Courtesy: Rose Prosper

A history of papal apologies

While popes past and present have apologized for the pain Indigenous peoples suffered at the hands of the Church, statements from the Vatican have failed to meaningfully address what took place in residential schools.

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Those harms were carried out at the local level in Canada by various dioceses and individual members of the clergy, some of whom have apologized since the last school closed in 1996.

On an “apostolistic journey” to the Dominican Republic in 1992, St. John Paul II apologized to Indigenous people for the “pain and suffering” the Church caused over 500 years in the Americas.

Thirteen years later, through the benchmark Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, the Christian churches that ran the schools — Roman Catholic, United, Anglican and Presbyterian — all agreed to financially support programs that benefitted survivors.

Only the Roman Catholic entities, however, failed to uphold their end of the bargain, spending chunks of the $29 million they promised to survivors on lawyers and administration costs, according to federal documents obtained by CBC.

Read more: Canadian Catholic bishops promise $30M to help residential school survivors

In 2009, a delegation from the Assembly of First Nations met Pope Benedict XVI in Rome, where the Holy Father expressed “sorrow” for the abuse of Indigenous children in residential schools, stating that “acts of abuse cannot be tolerated in society.”

Six years later, the Catholic signatories of the IRSS stopped fundraising for survivors after collecting just $3.9 million of their $25-million commitment, when a Saskatchewan judge ruled in favour of their buyout proposal, CBC reported.

In the same year, Pope Francis apologized in Bolivia for the Church’s crimes against Indigenous people during the “so-called conquest of America,” expressing regret for its “plentiful sin” and the passing of many years without an apology.

No apology was ever made for residential schools, however, and in December 2015 the Truth and Reconciliation Commission formally called on the Pope to atone in Canada within a year.

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‘Integrity is when words have meaning’: Indigenous people criticize apology, money from Canadian bishops – Sep 30, 2021

A missed opportunity

The TRC’s timeframe for such an apology elapsed long ago, and for Métis Elder Marie Bercier, so has the last meaningful opportunity for the Pope to apologize.

He should have done so after the horrific announcement of 215 unmarked burial sites in Kamloops, she said, but in the days that followed, Pope Francis expressed only “sorrow” and “closeness to the Canadian people” as the news recalled the “pain and sufferings of the past.”

Now, Bercier said his apology would mean “absolutely nothing” to her.

“How can you apologize to those children that we only have their bones now?” she asked from her home in Agassiz, B.C. “We don’t even know where some of them are buried, or whether they were thrown into a ditch, or whatever.”

It’s a lesser-known fact that Métis people attended residential schools, said Bernier. She doesn’t remember which one she was imprisoned at, since no one ever told her where they were taking her. She believes it was near Winnipeg.

“I do know what I was called when I was in the residential school … I didn’t have a name, I was the dirty little half-breed, the little bastard.”

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There is nothing the pope could say or do to make up for her experience, she said, or the impact her trauma has had on her children.

Marie Bercier is a Métis elder and residential school survivor from Manitoba.
Marie Bercier is a Métis elder and residential school survivor from Manitoba. Courtesy: Marie Bercier

The Assembly of First Nations, while calling on the Vatican to commit substantial resources to reconciliation and repudiate historical racist doctrines, has no plans to accept an apology from Pope Francis if he makes one.

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That’s an individual decision only the survivors can make, according to National Chief RoseAnne Archibald.

“It’s not for the Assembly of First Nations. It’s not for any national organization,” she told Global News.

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Former Nunatsiuk MP Jack Anawak believes “it’s never too late” to apologize as long as it’s “heartfelt,” but like other survivors, his acceptance of that apology would be conditional on where the Vatican draws the line.

“There has to be an admission that the Catholic Church corroborated with the government on the whole issue of colonialism and the attempt to assimilate,” he told Global News from his home in Iqaluit.

Anawak was taken hundreds of kilometres away from his home to attend Sir Joseph Bernier residential school in Chesterfield Inlet, where he was harshly punished for every behaviour that felt natural as a child in his Inuit culture.

He said he “could look at forgiveness,” but the Holy Father would need to recognize the widespread impacts of intergenerational trauma and take accountability for it in words that reflect the magnitude of what children suffered in the Church’s care.

The Vatican would also need to commit substantive funding to healing programs, he added, marking the apology as the start of its reconciliation journey, and not the end.

Jack Anawak was the member of Parliament for Nunatsiaq from 1988 to 1997 and is a survivor of Sir Joseph Bernier residential school in Chesterfield Inlet in Nunavut. Courtesy: Jack Anawak

Waiting for the right time

While the pope provides guidance to Catholics worldwide, experts and observers of the Vatican say there is separation between Rome and what happens in the dioceses.

They agree, for example, that Pope Francis could have apologized for residential schools anytime, but there’s less consensus on whether the papacy will deliver all that survivors expect of reparations for crimes committed in Canada.

“In the Catholic Church, the dioceses, the religious orders and the national episcopal conferences have great autonomy, and they have to take responsibility for the mistakes,” said Iacopo Scaramuzzi, an Italian journalist who has covered the Vatican for more than 15 years.

It wasn’t until September that the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops issued its own unequivocal statement of “profound remorse” for residential schools and pledged $30 million over up to five years to support healing and reconciliation.

Read more: Residential school records, previously withheld, to be released within 30 days: Miller

Catherine Clifford, a systematic and historical theology professor at St. Paul’s University in Ottawa, believes that apology sent a strong signal to Rome — a possible catalyst for the pope’s upcoming, undated visit to Canada.

Prior to that, she explained, “there was not a consensus among all the Canadian bishops” on how to respond to calls for reconciliation.

“They were not unanimous in wanting to ask Francis to come [to Canada] … so in fact, the bishops themselves have been kind of slow to acknowledge the need for a collective response and for an acknowledgement from the highest leadership of the Church.”

Regina Archbishop Don Bolen has apologized for residential schools several times in his life — first as a bishop in 2012 at a national event of the TRC in Saskatoon.

“Hearing those first witnesses — those accounts of all kinds of suffering — certainly drew out of me the desire to say, to the extent I was able to on behalf of the Church, I’m so sorry for what’s happened to you.”

During a 2017 trip to the Vatican, he and other church leaders raised the possibility of a visit to Canada and an apology from the Pope, but the following year His Holiness formally declined, saying he felt he could not “personally respond” to the TRC’s call for an apology.

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“Certainly, decisions made here in Canada don’t flow directly from Rome,” said Bolen. “Apologies needed to happen at this level and on the national level.”

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Archbishop of Regina says there is a long path ahead to healing and reconciliation – Jun 24, 2021

The limits of a public apology

In private meetings with Pope Francis — whenever they occur — members of the First Nations, Inuit and Métis delegation are likely to share their expectations and wishes of Pope Francis if he visits Canada.

Bishop William McGratten, vice-president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, said that dialogue will be “very important and very instrumental for the Holy Father.”

“He will hear first hand the suffering and the trauma that some of these survivors have experienced … In doing that, I think he can be better prepared and understand the role he can play by coming and being present to these communities.”

The papacy’s commitment to the delegation’s voyage is evidence the Vatican is preparing “the Canadian story carefully,” said church historian Massimo Faggioli. Even so, he told Global News, survivors who want a dynamic and categorical apology may need to adjust their “expectations,” if previous papal apologies are any indication of what Pope Francis might say.

“All those apologies always fall short; they’re always considered not enough and inadequate,” said the professor of religious studies and theology at Villanova University in Pennsylvania.

“From what we know, the best moments of Pope Francis apologizing are the ones who are available to victims only, without much fanfare, without much scene or props.”

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As “cynical” as it sounds, he added, there are many “institutional and political” factors that require “careful negotiation” in a public apology, which may limit the healing power of that moment.

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Pope agrees to visit Canada to aid in reconciliation – Oct 28, 2021

Survivors who want reconciliation funding to come directly from Rome — including Korkmaz, Bercier and Anawak — may also be disappointed, some suggest.

Canadian dioceses and congregations are likely to take charge of raising reconciliation funds as opposed to the Vatican, said John Martens, theology professor and director for the Centre for Christian Engagement at St. Mark’s College in Vancouver.

“I don’t think it’s something that will, in terms of reparation, come from the Vatican … I think the responsibility rests with the orders and with the church where these wrongs took place.”

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McGratten of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops said it’s important that reconciliation fundraising takes place locally.

“I know Pope Francis is very strong on that particular aspect,” he said from Calgary.

The “role of the Vatican,” he explained, would be to encourage Canadian Catholics to respond “with financial support.”

Pope Francis as a ‘spiritual elder’

While the dates are up in the air, between 25 and 30 Indigenous elders, youth, educators and knowledge keepers have been promised an audience with Pope Francis.

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Gary Gagnon is one of them and said he’s thrilled the Vatican will meet Indigenous peoples “nation to nation.”

Speaking about apologies, acceptance and forgiveness, the Edmonton-based cultural facilitator said there are “no easy answers” and all Indigenous peoples will have to “look into our hearts.”

“This is about healing now, this is not about showcasing the Pope,” said Gagnon, a member of the Canadian Catholic Indigenous Council and vice-president for Region 4 of the Métis Nation of Alberta.

“We want healing and we deserve it. We deserve an apology. We deserve to be listened to and to be heard.”

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Gagnon said he views Pope Francis as a “spiritual elder in the Catholic faith” — someone who has taken a vow of obedience, poverty and service.

“He’s got that quality of many of our beautiful men and women that we call elders and our spiritual leaders … humbleness, prayerful, ” he said.

“That’s why I think it’s meaningful that we hear from him, because we look at him as one of our leaders, our spiritual elders.”

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Alberta residential school survivors head to Vatican

‘The day you snatch their spirit’

After three trips to the Vatican herself, Korkmaz has a different view of the city-state and its leader.

St. Anne’s residential school, where she lived between the ages of 10 and 14, was home to some of the most harrowing documented abuses of the entire system — known in particular for its use of a homemade electric chair.

With her calls for accountability unanswered year after year, she said she’s beyond disappointed in “the humanity” of the Vatican.

“There’s no greater sin than abusing innocent children,” she explained.

“The day you abuse them is the day you snatch their spirit as a child … when is this going to end?”

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Korkmaz will be watching when the delegation makes its way to those same hallowed grounds where she has pressed for an apology. Even if it succeeds in securing one, she said the words ‘I’m sorry,’ no longer suffice.

Korkmaz wants the Holy Father to disprove what she learned in childhood — that he, his priests, bishops and cardinals are “untouchable.” Pope Francis must support the prosecution of individual abusers, she said, after repenting for the sins of the collective. He must also release all documents in the Church’s possession about residential schools.

If he doesn’t — if the limits of the papacy get in the way — she promises Rome hasn’t seen the last of her.

Evelyn Kormaz stands outside Parliament Hill in Ottawa on the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, Sept. 29, 2021 with the next generation of “warriors for truth and justice.”. Courtesy: Evelyn Korkmaz

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

Global News would like to thank the many experts, elders, survivors and youth who gave their voices and perspective to this article.

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