Papal apology ripples through Island First Nations: It's a start, but more 'actions' essential

First Nations leaders on Vancouver Island react to the pope's apology for the Catholic Church’s role in residential schools

Christie Indian Residential School (also known as Kakawis Residential School) was a Roman Catholic school that operated until 1983. It was one of the last residential schools in British Columbia to close. This photograph was taken by a United Church minister, William Rickaby, who spent the majority of his working years at Clo-oose. | Photo: B.C. Pacific Mountain Regional Council Archives

The pope’s apology last week for the Catholic Church’s role in residential schools was “overwhelming and emotional,” but only the start for Ahousaht Chief Greg Louie.

Louie immediately thought of his sister, mother and grandmother — along with his own experiences — at Christie Residential School near Tofino, where three generations of his family were systematically “stripped” of their identities.

“The first moment I was brought to residential school, my Ahousaht identity was taken away,” Louie said. “I was literally stripped … take those clothes off, they said. They cut my hair and divided the boys and girls. I seldom saw my sister after that.”

Louie’s sister, Marian, who died in 2019, was left with the painful effects of Christie School, as were Louie’s mother and grandmother.

“My first thought was my sister was not here to hear [Pope Francis’] apology,” Louie said. “My sister had gone through a lot, so it was an overwhelming moment when I read the text from the pope’s speech. My mother and grandmother also lost their culture.”

The Christie Roman Catholic School opened in 1900 on Meares Island on Ahousaht territory.

According to Truth and Reconciliation archives, overcrowding was common throughout much the school’s history. Six children died of tubercular meningitis between 1939 and 1941. Over a period of years in the 1950s, a school maintenance worker sexually abused a student.

In 1971, the school was closed and students moved to the Christie Student Residence in Tofino. In 1974 the residence was transferred to the West Coast District Council of Indian Chiefs, closing in 1983.

Louie said the Catholic Church has to follow the apology with “actions.”

“There are ripple effects of the schools that still exist,” Louie said. “A lot of it it is the behaviours that come with alcoholism, health issues and the loss of identity. People are suffering in silence and pain or they are shouting out for help.”

He said a visit from the pope and a meeting with survivors is the next meaningful step, but the church’s response should be “sustained” into the future with financial supports for First Nations “for the losses of culture, language, family … and the loss of one’s self.”

Louie said the church should be responsible for supports to mental wellness of survivors as well as addictions, family parenting issues and economic development.

He said he ask formally asked Assembly of First Nations national chief RoseAnne Archibald to urge the pope to visit Vancouver Island. Pope Francis indicated last week he will visit Canada, possibly as early as July.

Judith Sayers, president of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, which represents 14 Island First Nations, said the pope’s apology has affected everyone differently.

“Some are happy because he finally apologized. Others do not care; they did not want an apology from him,” the council said in a statement. “Others are angry because he did not apologize on behalf of the church, only himself and ‘some others.’ ”

The council said others want the pope to apologize on First Nation lands and “face the people that these institutions were made to commit genocide against, not doing it safely from his home and country.”

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action said the apology had to be done in Canada, said Sayers, adding: “Bottom line, the apology did not hit the mark for everyone.”

The Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council believes that if the pope comes to Canada to do a formal apology, the apology must be far-ranging and include action items that will begin the process of healing the traumas caused as a direct and indirect result of the Indian residential school system.

The council said the pope needs to not only admit that the system severely impaired language, culture, communities and governance, but to offer tangible ways of righting the many wrongs the church committed.

“People need to realize that an apology can never take away the intense and ongoing pain and trauma of sexual, physical, mental and emotional abuse that was wrought upon our people in residential schools and the negative impacts that had on generations of our families and communities,” Sayers said.

“Are words enough? Words are a start, but it should never have taken this many years and so much effort to get an apology,” she said, noting that the last residential school closed in 1996.

Mariah Charleson, vice-president of council, said the apology would have meant more if accompanied by concrete action.

“That is what reconciliation is about,” she said. “The Catholic Church is wealthy and could certainly help with money and resources to provide needed services in counselling, cultural healing activities, education, revival of our languages and traditional laws, to name a few.”

In a statement, Chief Ron Sam and councillors of the Songhees First Nation said they acknowledge the recent papal apology, and the work of survivors and Indigenous leaders in advocating for an apology regarding the Roman Catholic Church’s role in residential schools.

“Make no mistake about it, there is still more work to be done,” said the Songhees statement.

“We send wishes for strength and healing to all survivors, our families and communities who have been affected by residential schools.

“We see you, we hear you, we support you.”

On Vancovuer Island, the Catholic Church also operated the Kuper Island Residential School, now called Penelakut Island, between 1890 and 1975 and included students from several Island First Nations.

According to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, a survey in 1916 showed that of 264 former students, 107 had died. Two sisters drowned while trying to escape the school in 1959 and another student committed suicide in 1966. The federal government took over the administration of the school in 1969 and closed it in 1975. In 1995 a former employee pleaded guilty to three charges of indecent assault and gross indecency.

Penelakut Tribe member Steve Sxwithul’txw, who attended the school in the 1970s, called the pope’s apology “very scripted,” and although he issued a personal apology and an apology for “others,” it should have involved the entire Roman Catholic Church.

“It’s a lot more than a few bad applies in the tree,” said Sxwithul’txw, calling the church’s role a “systematic destruction” of cultures.

“There has to be work on multiple levels [by the church] to make these many wrongs right.”

The Penelakut First Nation announced in July that after using ground-penetrating radar that more than 160 unmarked graves had been found on the grounds and foreshore of the former residential school site.

The Residential School Survivors and Family crisis line at 1-800-721-0066 is available 24 hours for anyone experiencing pain or distress.

Times Colonist