“I turned on the TV for a while, but then I just walked away”

Three Anishinaabe people from Kitigan Zibi share their experiences as boarding school survivors and how the Pope’s apology made them feel

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Pope Francis’ visit to Canada this week included a trip to Maskwacis, a community south of Edmonton, where the Ermineskin Residential School once stood, one of the largest residential schools in Canada. There, the pope said he was beginning what he considered a “penitential pilgrimage,” imploring God’s forgiveness as he apologized for the Church’s involvement in Canada’s residential school system. That system saw an estimated 150,000 indigenous children sent to boarding schools funded by the federal government and run by religious organizations, to be assimilated into the dominant white culture.

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“It is necessary to remember how the policies of assimilation and emancipation, which also included the system of boarding schools, were devastating for the people of these lands,” the Pope said, adding that he regretted “deeply” how “many Christians supported the colonizing mentality of the powers that oppressed the Indigenous Peoples”.

Some people in indigenous communities found the Pope’s apology cathartic. Others were offended. We spoke to three Anishinaabe people from Kitigan Zibi, a reservation north of Ottawa, who are residential school survivors, and asked about their experiences and thoughts on the Pope’s visit.

Eddie Pezindewatch Costa:

“When I left here, I went to the train station in the city, and when I got to Ottawa we transferred to another train. She was nine years old, going at 10. And she could hear the echo of the driver’s footsteps, and she said, ‘All aboard. Let’s go.’

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“Maybe we were 21 and we got on the train. It was three days and two nights in Kenora, at St. Mary’s, with no other place to sleep than our seats. I could not sleep

“We arrived at five in the morning and there were taxis to pick us up. We got to school around six. They took me to the bedroom. I had my suitcase with me, with my clothes, and this nun says, ‘You’re not going to need these clothes,’ and she took my suitcase and put it in the attic and said she’d get it back when she was gone. And she showed me my bed. She had a number, number 36. ‘You’re number 36.’ So I put on the pajamas she gave me. All the clothes had the number 36.

“Then I went down to the barbershop. A guy was waiting for me to cut my hair. And then they gave me this thing to put in my hair to kill the lice. I showered and put on my clothes: a yellow shirt and black pants. When I got back to the bedroom, all the other kids had gotten up, I looked over and they were all dressed like me.

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“And this guard came over and said, ‘I’m taking over here. You are going to listen to me. He was not a priest. We called it the guardian. He said: ‘When I talk to you, it’s yes or no. There are no other excuses. And you speak in English. But I only spoke Algonquian.

“When I went to residential school, my parents told me, ‘You’re going to be a teacher. You are going to be a lawyer. You will come back well educated. They believed that, but it didn’t work that way.

After returning from St. Mary's Indian Residential School in Kenora, Eddie Pezindewatch Côté wrote 'Residential School Survivors Song' on violin.
After returning from St. Mary’s Indian Residential School in Kenora, Eddie Pezindewatch Côté wrote ‘Residential School Survivors Song’ on violin. Photo by Bruce Deachman /post media

“For me, the Pope’s apology did not come from the heart. He picked up a piece of paper. I could do the same. He could have said ‘I want all the survivors to be there to apologize’, but only the selected ones went there. They asked me to go, but I said no. Phil Fontaine, he’s a friend of mine, he asked me if he wanted to go to Rome and the government asked me if he wanted to go to Quebec City for the Pope’s visit, but I said no. I didn’t think he was going to apologize for anything, and I didn’t want to go back and go through this again and re-traumatize myself. Sometimes I have nightmares; I’m sleeping and I’m back at St. Mary’s. And I wake up and I can’t sleep after that.

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“I don’t believe your apology. (Stephen) Harper did the same thing, right? He apologized and nothing happened afterwards. I was there in Parliament when he apologized, and I thought nothing would be done after he left. It was just words and no action. So when the Pope leaves here, they’re not going to do much. But I hope he does something nice for us.

“When I heard that the Pope was coming and they selected where he was going to be, they did not go to where they buried the children. I turned on the TV for a while (during the Pope’s apology), but then I just walked away.”

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