Complex Feelings Aroused by the Perspective of Forgiveness Among Residential School Survivors


Residential school survivor Rod Alexis recalls his late father telling him, “Son, I don’t know how to be a father.”

“I lost the gift that the Creator gave us because I was alone in residential school,” Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation member recalls his father, also a residential school survivor, saying. “Many times I wanted to say ‘I love you’, I wanted to give you a hug, but I didn’t know how”.

The Pope’s upcoming visit to Canada is evoking complex feelings among many indigenous peoples. Some residential school survivors and those living with the intergenerational trauma caused by institutions are willing to forgive the Roman Catholic Church for the brutality it inflicted on indigenous peoples.

For others, the ongoing pain makes it hard to let go of anger.

“They killed our spirit,” says Alexis. “Some of those wounds have gone too far. We see our young generation today dying from drugs, alcohol, many of them in prisons due to the effects of the trauma they went through.”

Canada forced an estimated 150,000 First Nations, Metis and Inuit children to attend residential schools for more than a century, with the Catholic Church running about 60 percent of the institutions. The last residential school closed in 1996.

The children were punished for speaking their languages ​​and practicing their culture. They were separated from their families and, in many cases, subjected to psychological, physical and sexual abuse.

Pope Francis will land in Edmonton on Sunday before heading to Quebec City on Wednesday and Iqaluit on Friday. The pontiff is expected to offer an apology for the Catholic Church’s role in residential schools near the site of the former Ermineskin Indian Residential School in the community of Maskwacis, Alta.

Fernie Marty, who attended a residential school in northeastern Alberta, says he is willing to forgive.

“I had the opportunity to start my personal healing journey a few years ago. I didn’t want to carry that guilt, shame, resentment and hatred in my heart. I wanted to leave all of that behind,” says the 73-year-old Papaschase First Nation elder.

But many don’t feel the same way, says Marty.

“There are some that I don’t know what it would take for them to leave behind the traumas they’ve experienced in their lives.”

The head of the Ermineskin Cree Nation, one of the four communities that make up Maskwacis, says an apology would be a critical step toward forgiveness.

“It’s time for a lot of average Canadians to feel uncomfortable,” says Chief Randy Ermineskin.

“I will tell you: my brother was 16 years old. He came home (from residential school). The first thing he did was hang himself. So those are some of the truths that need to be revealed.”

Ermineskin says he will watch people’s faces closely as some 15,000 people are expected to hear the pope’s apology.

“It’s a moment where you’re going to feel like this is such a good feeling. Or, it could be the other way around.”

For many, forgiveness is an important step toward reconciliation, adds Grand Chief George Arcand Jr. of the Confederacy of Treaty 6 First Nations.

“Although these damages can never be undone, in order to forget, I think there has to be forgiveness.”

But Arcand says he sometimes feels indigenous people are too lenient.

“We accept forgiveness and welcome people into our homes, because that is what our parents taught us. Traditionally, those things are still done today,” she says.

“But there has to be justice.

“There has to be an opportunity for the mistakes that were made to be fixed. We only see this as a first step. It’s not the only step.”

The Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program has a hotline to help residential school survivors and their families who are suffering from trauma invoked by the memory of past abuse. The number is 1-866-925-4419.

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on July 23, 2022.

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