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Residential school survivors say pope’s apology just words

Some survivors find healing through their language and culture.

SASKATOON — For Pauline Okemow and Henry Pitawanakwat, the pope’s apology is just words and is meaningless if no action is taken to repair the damage caused by residential schools. Both are survivors of that institution.

Pope Francis spent a week visiting Edmonton, Quebec and Iqaluit to meet various Indigenous leaders and their communities as part of his pilgrimage of penance from July 24 to 29 after being invited by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The weeklong visit was also a gesture of asking for forgiveness from those survivors and others from their communities who were not part of the First Nations, Inuit and Métis delegations whom he met in the Vatican last April.

Okemow likened the apology made by the pontiff to a sandwich with no filling and asked the pope how he can help repair the lives of the survivors and their communities who suffered from intergenerational trauma.

“I don't know what's to repair in such shallow words. His apology to me means not very much. He has made a sandwich with no filler. They are just words. It would mean something if there was action behind the words he spoke. You can say sorry all you want and if action isn't taken then it means nothing. He should have started his visit to the very site of the first 215 unmarked graves to acknowledge the abuses and murder of these children,” Okemow, who is a member of the Saskatoon Survivors Circle, told SASKTODAY.

“[He should have] acknowledge all residential school survivors even the homeless ones and the incarcerated ones, all who have not seen [witnessed] or heard the apology. The inclusion of all even the unrecognized residential schools. I ask, how he is going to repair our people? What will he do to help the survivors?”

Pitawanakwat also has the same sentiments adding that the papal visit became too emotional for survivors like him working as Indigenous translators.

“The pope’s visit to me is meaningless. To me, an apology doesn’t mean anything. It's only words. Unless there’s some kind of retribution [sic] or some kind of action behind it to remedy the mistake that they made,” Pitawanakwat, who is based in Ottawa, told SASKTODAY in a phone interview.

“The biggest mistake they made to us is taking our language away from us attending residential schools. They were directly responsible for losing our language. My people were severely punished when they were heard using our language. It also included the loss of our culture.”

He said that he is among the rapidly decreasing number of language keepers and knowledge holders who are trying to avoid languages like Ojibwe and Cree from being extinct.

“We’re losing our culture and we need to spread awareness on our language because it is quickly becoming extinct. I specialize in languages and I am also trying to bring back the teachings of our past.”

Pitawanakwat is also an elder and is from the Three Fires Confederacy and is an Anishinaabemowin speaker who is fluent in Algonquin, Chippewa, Odawa, Ojibwe and Pottawatomi.

Intergenerational trauma

Okemow added that many of the survivors had already died but their children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren who might have witnessed the effects of their trauma are still alive, expecting that intergenerational trauma will remain within their communities.

“How are they going to fix that? I’m angered at how many times we as Indigenous peoples heard the words ‘I’m sorry’ and nothing was done to right the wrongs. It’s just ‘get over it.’ It is the same scenario but a different time,” said Okemow.

Okemow said that it was her own choice not to attend any of the events and services in Edmonton — meeting members and survivors of the Ermineskin Cree Nation in Maskwacis, the reopening of the Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples, the mass at Commonwealth Stadium and the pilgrimage at Lac Ste. Anne.

“I didn't attend any events or services in Edmonton. I won't attend any services or church that has murdered or physically and sexually abused children and not be punished for it,” said Okemow.

She added that it is also better if Pope Francis should have said that they would allow a thorough investigation into the abuses and the murder of the children that attended the residential schools.

“[That] charges will be filed so families can have justice and closure. I don't know what his intentions are for his clergy. I for one would like to see justice for all survivors and their late loved ones. You can apologize all you want on behalf of a group but until they can say it themselves and be heard then it's just lip service,” said Okemow.

Healing journey

She said that she is currently on her healing journey adding that she is not a religious person, but rather spiritual as there is a big difference between the two.

“I have been on my spiritual healing journey with our Indigenous ceremonies, sweat lodges and [seeking our] elders for advice and consultation. I was in counselling for 15 years and it didn't do me any good. Once I turned to my people and ceremonies that was where I got my healing.”

As much as possible, she also helps others in their healing journey through the Saskatoon Survivors Circle.

“I start from home educating my son and now my grandsons never force or impose anything on them.  I can only help if someone asks for help. You can't force healing on anyone everyone is at a different stage of healing some will never recover,” said Okemow.

For Pitawanakwat, the apology only takes away the guilt from Pope Francis but not the abuses and the effects it caused on the survivors.

“The trauma and the pain that we carry are going to continue with us survivors. There is nothing that would take it away. Funding would at least help us bring our language and culture back. To revive it since it is critical for our people. Some survivors can find healing through our language and culture,” he said.

Reparations for cultural damage 

Pitawanakwat, who experienced the ‘60s scoop — the mass removal of Indigenous children from their communities to be put into the welfare system — said funding would help save their language as it would assist them in teaching it to the children in their communities.

“I would like to see some funding come from the Jesuits … We, currently, have no support at all. We have become reliant on money. Before, money never meant anything to us. But, to correct the situation and help bring our language back, we need funding,” he said.

“Translators like me, we are now of age. We need to preserve our language and culture but it is very difficult to do it without funds.”

He added that funds provided to their community by the government have also been limited.

“What people don’t understand is we have so many communities across the country and we compete for those funds. But there’s hardly enough left for any community by the time it is given.”

Second generation survivor

Pitawanakwat’s mother spent 13 years in a residential school and he also attended a similar institution that was run by the Catholic religious order Society of Jesus or the Jesuits.

He said that he witnessed how his mother struggled with the trauma she experienced while attending a residential school.

“I can identify every character defect that my mother brought back from there. And I was also sexually abused by the Jesuits in our community church. There’s so much evidence of it in our community and it is traumatizing. It traumatized our youth,” said Pitawanakwat.

“We have a lot of social problems in my community. Currently, we have overdoses and suicides, and the pandemic also did not help. Our youth lost their identities. That’s why we need to do something and we need help.”