At the end of July, St. Mary’s was honoured to be one of the only universities invited to send a delegation of participants to attend the much-anticipated papal visit. In a response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action, Pope Francis journeyed to Alberta to offer an apology on behalf of the Catholic Church for their role in the Canadian residential school system. This followed an apology at the Vatican earlier this year, which led to our Holy Father being invited by First Nations, Métis and Inuit leaders to journey to Canada offer an apology on sacred land.
Thanks to a special invitation by the Diocese of Calgary extended to Michelle Scott, our Director of Indigenous Initiatives, StMU was able to form a delegation comprised mainly of Indigenous students, alumni and local Elders and Knowledge Keepers – with many members of our delegation being residential school survivors or the family member of a survivor. Also joining our delegation was President-elect Dr. Sinda Vanderpool, and Director of Campus Ministry, Jolene Smith.
“The formation of this delegation offered a clear opportunity to invite urban Indigenous Elders and knowledge keepers who everyday share their wisdom and support with institutions from Calgary – but aren’t from this territory and might not have someone from their home community inviting them,” explains Michelle Scott.
This was a historical event for our delegation to attend, and in his apology on July 25th at the site of a former residential school in Maskwacis, Pope Francis acknowledged the extent of the pain caused by the long-term practice of breaking families apart and attempting to assimilate Indigenous children into Western ways of thinking via Canada’s residential school system. He affirmed the sobering reality that many wounds are still wide open.
Through his translator, Pope Francis addressed the crowd with an unequivocal and contrite apology on behalf of the Catholic Church – an apology that many believed would never come. He asked for forgiveness for the sins committed and stated that on behalf of the Church, he is “sorry for the ways in which, regrettably, many Christians supported the colonizing mentality of the powers that oppressed the Indigenous Peoples.”
For residential school survivors and their families, this was a long-awaited moment to hear such an undeniable apology on sacred land.
“The apology felt genuine in that moment and in that space, it felt authentic. It was a remarkable moment for the Elders in our delegation, who commented that they couldn’t believe in their lifetime they were hearing this apology,” says Michelle.
“They could remember being a child and being taken from their home and told they couldn’t speak their language or practice their culture. And now they are receiving an apology. An apology can only do so much, but at least now we can move forward in a way that isn’t denying the truth.”
Michelle, who is a part of the Mi’kmaq Nation and has roots from the Paul family in Newfoundland, found the formal apology at Maskwacis to be both “surreal” and “moving” and a testimony of the resiliency and strength of Indigenous communities.
“It was Indigenous people showing that this is our home territory, and this is what it means to be a good host and a good relative. It was really beautiful to experience, it showed such resilience and pride,” explains Michelle. “It showed that we are still here and that we are strong. The whole reason for this apology was the cultural genocide of our people, but we were able to show that we are still here and that our beautiful culture and knowledge is still alive and being passed down.”
In addition to the formal apology at Maskwacis, our delegation attended two other events on the Pope’s penitential pilgrimage: an open-air Mass with Pope Francis, and a pilgrimage to the site of Lac Ste. Anne with the Liturgy of the Word. These events were selected to fit the ‘theme’ of walking together on a pilgrimage of healing, reconciliation and hope.
“At every event we attended, I was consistently reminded of the generous and strong spirit of Indigenous peoples. The focus was always on the Indigenous People’s tremendous generosity and kindness as they welcomed others and shared their culture,” says Jolene Smith, our Director of Campus Ministry. “Often, I was aware of how difficult this was for many people – the hurt that was present, how it was affecting people and yet within all of it, healing and forgiveness was also taking place. I am honoured to have been a part of our delegation, to hear these unique perspectives and learn from them.”
The experience of being at these events as Pope Francis connected with Indigenous Peoples on Canadian soil and addressed the ongoing impact of colonization was truly humbling and touching for our delegation members.
“As a new guest to this land, I personally felt humbled to have been invited. What floored me, on this journey was the response by the Indigenous leaders involved in planning the pilgrimage. In spite of years of intergenerational trauma and harm—both personal and political— a number of leaders demonstrated forgiveness,” says Dr. Vanderpool when reflecting on her time in the StMU delegation.
“The most moving part of the entire journey for me was hearing a couple of Indigenous people disclose that this was the first time they had been able to face the pain and anger that they felt and experienced as a result of being educated in a residential school,” continues Dr. Vanderpool. “I knew I was standing on Holy ground as I heard these words. I will never understand the courage that it takes to face such a hurtful past. I pray that I will show up and hold space for continued healing moving forward with my Indigenous sisters and brothers.”
As we continue to reflect on this visit and consider how it connects to the spirit of reconciliation, many of our delegation members want to share their experiences and what they learned with our students, faculty, and staff through a panel discussion and talking circle on September 23, 2022. Stay tuned for more details on this event as we continue to take meaningful action toward reconciliation and moving forward together in a good .