Indigenous, religious groups in northwestern Ontario look for steps forward after papal apology

A residential school survivor and church leader in Thunder Bay, Ont., are among those who are optimistic that last week’s papal apology will help the healing process for Indigenous people in Canada.

Pope Francis apologized for the conduct of some members of the Roman Catholic Church relating to Canada’s residential school system, following a week of public and private meetings with First Nations, Inuit and Métis delegations.

“I feel Pope Francis has sincerity in his heart, his spirit and in his words,” said Esther Diabo, a residential school survivor who lives in Thunder Bay.

Diabo said she anticipated a positive outcome following the delegation’s meeting with the Pope, and believes the apology will allow for next steps in the healing process for many First Nation people.

“I also felt that he has taken on the accountability and responsibility of admitting the wrongs done to our Anishinaabe people,” she said. “I would like to personally move along in my own life as I continue to heal on a daily basis.”

Esther Diabo, a residential school survivor living in Thunder Bay, Ont., says she believes the apology from Pope Francis was sincere. (CBC)

Diabo attended St. Joseph’s Residential School in Thunder Bay when she was just five years old, and later moved to St. Anne’s residential school in Fort Albany before returning home when she was 13.

She said hearing the words “I am very sorry” from the Pope was emotional for her both as a residential school survivor and someone who has leaned on her own Catholic faith while never straying from Anishinaabe teachings.

“I have such strong faith in God, in our Creator that something positive was going to come out of this, and that’s how you have to look at it, optimistically. You have to, you know, reach out and ask for that help if that’s what you’re looking for.”

Vatican trip a ‘milestone’

The president of the Thunder Bay and District Métis Council said she was also watching closely for the outcomes of the Vatican visit, and called the trip a “milestone” for the Métis community in the Thunder Bay district.

“We needed our survivors to be heard. We need the church to commit to the real acts of that reconciliation, and we’re very proud of the Métis delegation that met with this Pope, including those elders, because they were able to come forward and tell their stories,” said Wendy Houston.

The Métis delegation held a private audience at the Vatican and was the first of three delegations to begin the meetings. Francis sat and listened to three Métis survivors of church-run residential schools tell their stories.

Métis delegation gives Pope Francis symbolic pair of red moccasins

The group explained the moccasins were presented ‘as a sign of the willingness of the Metis people to forgive if there is meaningful action from the church.’ 0:40

Canada forced more than 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children to attend residential schools between the 1880s and 1997, a policy the Truth and Reconciliation Commission called “cultural genocide.”

Houston said while the apology from the Pope and the trip itself were historic, one of her biggest moments was seeing the Inuit, Métis and First Nations standing together and supporting one another.

“Those were the challenges that were faced by all those Indigenous people and groups that were there. It was a direct result of the deep, intergenerational trauma that was experienced by the families and communities that were torn apart by the residential school system,” she said.

“So seeing the three together, intertwined … It was very emotional for me to all week.”

Bishops pledge $30M, local dioceses look for steps forward

While Indigenous groups continue to unpack the outcomes from the delegation’s trip to Rome, Roman Catholic dioceses across the country are also thinking about steps forward.

On a local level, Bishop Fred Colli said the Thunder Bay Diocese has been working for more than a year to build relationships with Indigenous people and support the healing process for .residential school survivors

Bishop Fred Colli in Thunder Bay says he was ‘very pleased’ with the apology from the Pope, and his parish had discussions over the weekend about the Vatican visit. (Diocese of Thunder Bay/YouTube)

Following the discovery of unmarked graves across Canada last summer, as well as new revelations about the Catholic Church’s failed compensation efforts, the Canadian Council of Catholic Bishops announced a new five-year, $30-million fundraising campaign.

“They’re the ones who are going to look at how the funding is, the money is spent, and then the Indigenous communities that are proposing projects are going to monitor them in their areas. So we’re looking very hopefully at doing things in the future to help build relationships in a positive way,” Colli said about the funding.

Colli added he’s been working with a committee of elders to implement projects and programs to “deepen relationships.”

“We’re looking at youth education projects like community gardens and drumming circles. We’re looking at pastoral and grief counselling, and support of residential school survivors.”

He also said the Thunder Bay Diocese is gathering all documentation and records that will be needed to assist in identifying any unmarked graves or containing residential school stories.

He said while the work is underway, he recognizes the process will take time and healing won’t happen overnight.

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