Opinion | Why I turned down a private session with the Pope

On July 29, a select group of 22 residential school survivors were asked to attend a private meeting with Pope Francis in Quebec City as part of his national apology tour. I was, as an alumnus of the Mohawk Institute in Brantford, Ontario, selected as one of those presenters, but while I was honored by the request, I had to turn it down.

I did it because they gave me 60 seconds to talk to the Pope and then take a picture with him. There was no way he could sum up our concerns and why we as Mohawks have rejected his apology.

We have done so because the Roman Catholic Church has not cooperated in publishing the records of children assigned to church-run institutions. Without those documents there is no way we can answer the fundamental questions of how many children were taken, where they were confined, what happened to them and where they are now.

No indigenous entity knows the answers and to truly heal we need our children to return to our homes.

We also reject the apology because it did not acknowledge that criminal acts were committed, from food deprivation to murder. The remains of the missing children will tell us more but the ones who were the abusers were employees of the church; it was not just individual misguidance but institutional.

We said no to the apology because it did not offer equitable restitution, nor did it provide a formula for how we can work with the church to achieve real truth and reconciliation based on the wishes of survivors. It was not recognized that in all cases the survivors must be consulted and have the authority to supervise each and every one of the programs directed to this issue.

I was unable to present, within my allotted minute, our concrete and applicable ideas on how we can truly heal on our terms.

I could not summarize the wide-ranging, tragic and permanent effects that the kidnapping of children has had on my home community of Akwesasne: loss of language, cultural disruption, fractures within families and loss of connection to our ancestral lands.

It was impossible for me to say how wowed by the cooperation of the local gang council, the Indian agent, the social worker and the RCMP officer. In that minute I would not have been able to address the feelings of abandonment and despair, of emotional and spiritual despair that all of us experienced in high school.

I later learned that the Pope called what happened to us a genocide, a word with powerful legal implications. But he did not say that the church committed genocide, nor did he reject the Doctrine of Discovery, which was the basis on which we were kidnapped and remains the rock on which all “Indian” law stands, from the earliest encounters to the present. .

He did not want to participate in what he perceived as a public relations event in which the Mohawks were perceived as obedient. We will never be that.

In June 1968, all of the Mohawk children at the institute were formally expelled, the first time for a single group in the history of residential schools. I am proud of that, just as I am proud that our people reject any apology and action without justice.

Doug George-Kanentiio, Akwesasne Mohawk, is the vice president of the Hiawatha Institute for Indigenous Knowledge.


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