‘I Forgive You and I Forgive God:’ A Residential School Survivor’s Healing Journey


Shortly after dawn on Sunday, a dozen elders from Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc boarded a small bus bound for Edmonton. They were headed to Alberta to enjoy the historic papal visit.

As they packed their luggage and took their seats, there was a murmur of excitement. There was also a shared recognition that the journey would be emotional.

“It’s going to be very impactful and I’m very honored to go on this journey with our survivors,” Kúkpi7 Rosanne Casimir, chief of Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc, told CTV National News.

The group was made up of residential school survivors. As children, they were forced to attend the old residential Indian school in Kamloops.

The institution, once the largest of its kind in Canada, was operated by the Catholic Church from 1890 to 1969.

“There was so much pain that happened there,” Tk’emlúps elder Diena Jules told CTV National News. “This trip is important for me and for my people.”

Not far from where the bus is scheduled to leave, Harvey McLeod retraced the steps he took when he arrived at the Kamloops school.

“I was here from the fall of 1966 and I left in the summer of 1968. It was a very long and painful two years,” he told CTV National News.

McLeod, or YilMixWm as he is commonly called, is the head of BC’s Upper Nicola Band.

As he walked past the imposing brick building, he pointed out where the boys’ and girls’ dormitories used to be.

You can remember the exact location of your bed. He also cannot forget the fear and anxiety he felt when he was an 11-year-old boy, torn from his family by the Church.

“A lot of the pain, a lot of it, I buried deep, very deep. I put a very big wall around myself as a way of trying to protect myself,” he said.

A report published by the National Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015 detailed extensive mistreatment in Canadian residential schools, including verbal, physical and sexual abuse

Like so many others, McLeod’s time in the residential system left him with a legacy of trauma. He says there were “spankings”, but it was the more sinister things that “caused many wounds”.

He doesn’t like to share too many details, but says that in addition to physical abuse, he was sexually assaulted.

“There were horrors that happened at that school, and I was so angry that they sent me there.”

The abuse McLeod suffered left him with a hatred for the Church, so much so that he says he has given up on God altogether.

“I had a conversation with God and told him to leave me alone. ‘You leave me alone and I’ll leave you alone.'”

That anger would last long after he left residential school and follow him into adulthood. He believes it also led to a heartbreaking divorce and suicide attempt.

“I was so angry and had built such a wall that I didn’t know how to love others or myself,” he said. “A lot of my injuries are related to the terrible things that happened at the Kamloops school.”

McLeod sought advice, but said one of his biggest transformational moments came five years ago while on vacation in Italy.

While in Vatican City, during a Papal Mass in St. Peter’s Square, he saw Pope Francis.

“As he made his way through the crowd and came closer, I looked at him and told him I forgive you and I forgive God. When I did, it felt like there was an explosion inside me.”

McLeod says that forgiveness helped him release his anger.

“We need to forgive to move on, if I hold on to the past then I will always be there.”

As a result, he feels that he found a renewed happiness and a sense of peace.

With his own healing journey progressing, McLeod will not be traveling to see the pontiff, but he hopes the visit will help other survivors.

“This is an opportunity to step forward. These institutions did a lot of damage, but we are still here.”

Back on the bus, the elders said a special prayer before the vehicle pulled out of the parking lot.

By participating in the Pope’s visit, they too hope to further their own healing journey.


If you are a former survivor of a struggling residential school, or have been affected by the residential school system and need help, you can contact the 24-hour Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419

Additional resources and mental health support for indigenous peoples are available here.

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