A Path of Mixed Emotions

Written by Han Slater

Maskwacis and Edmonton

Edmonton witnessed a historical event on July 24th, 2022. Pope Francis visited Edmonton, Alberta, in the Catholic Church’s mission to strengthen and reconcile with the Indigenous people of Canada. A subject that is politically, socially, and culturally charged. As such, because of this subject’s delicate nature and what it means for the Indigenous community, there will be a disclaimer here that I will discuss topics like Residential Schools, MMIW, sexual violence, physical violence, and child abuse in this article. In addition, this article will discuss the significance of the Pope visiting Edmonton and Canada; this article will not promote hate or breed contempt but discuss this event’s importance and the perspectives surrounding the event.

Many individuals in Edmonton expressed confusion, joy, uncertainty, anger, or indifference when the Pope landed at the YEG airport. However, from a historical perspective, it is a monumental event that speaks volumes of the Catholic Church, or at least Pope Francis, wanting to push for reconciliation, talks to the forefront and understands the profound impact that the Residential Schools still have on Indigenous communities today. From an emotional standpoint, this is, for some, a chance to begin the healing process, while others believe that saying “sorry” is not enough. 

Luci Johnson, a member of the Samson Cree Nation, had this to say to CBC News, “For the amount of trauma … some of us maybe put deep down in ourselves and didn’t want to deal with it, and now it’s all coming back out.” Luci Johnson helps people navigate the court system in Maskwacis. Johnson is a day school survivor, and her parents, now deceased, were residential school survivors.

“And those are the things that no ‘sorry’ — [a] five-letter word — is ever going to make us heal.” No one can make another person forgive another or make them pursue a path of healing. A way of healing is something people choose on their terms and tread with their emotional and mental support. Other people, like the Honourary Chief Wilton Littlechild of Ermineskin Cree Nation, the former Grand Chief of Treaty Six First Nations, and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission member, had this to offer to CBC. 

“At least for those that have a desire, that want to forgive, will be given that opportunity, and that to me is my one ongoing prayer for this visit.” A formal apology from the Pope was one of the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission) recommendations released in 2015. 

Many people asked why Maskwacis for the Pope’s apology and first stop in his itinerary. Maskwacis, south of Edmonton, held Canada’s most prominent residential school. It is estimated the Catholic Church institutionalized more than 150,000 First Nations, Inuit, and Metis children during the 18th and 19th centuries; how many returned is unknown. The province of Alberta was home to 25 of 139 residential schools in Canada, more than any other jurisdiction. Maskwacis consists of four nations, including the Ermineskin Cree Nation, where the Ermineskin Residential School was open from 1895 to 1975. A significant event for the Pope was to visit the site of one of the largest residential schools in Canada. Still, the Indigenous community met it with mixed reactions. 

Addressing Everything in its Entirety

The Pope addressed the mass gathered in Maskwacis but failed to handle everything the residential school survivors endured. After the Pope delivered his speech, many quickly noticed that he could not hold the Catholic church accountable for the sexual abuse done to the schools’ survivors. In his speech, he remarks that his visit to Canada is a “penitential pilgrimage.” The statement is a penitential pilgrimage on behalf of the Catholic church. Therefore, it is a fair conclusion to include acknowledgment of all the wrongs committed in the past. However, as mentioned previously with Luci Johnson, many Indigenous people are not ready to forgive. The overwhelming amount of backlash because of the failure to acknowledge sexual abuse in the schools proves that the Catholic church should admit all wrongs to move forward. The following day in Edmonton, at the football stadium, there was a free public mass held for those who wished to attend. An estimated 50,000 people attended. However, while it was free and many people attended, the Pope failed to talk about Indigenous culture and tradition, despite apologizing for the abuses committed by the Catholic church the previous day in Maskwacis. Daryold Corbiere Winkler, a priest in Ottawa who is Anishinaabe, was disappointed as the mass was held in a traditional Catholic setting involving Latin prayer. Many Residential Schools involved listening to traditional Latin prayer, a reignition of trauma for the survivors like Angel Dermit, who attended as a child at the Lower Post Residential School in British Columbia. Many Indigenous attendees felt that the Pope missed an opportunity to address their culture and traditions. Rose-Marie Blair-Isberg, a residential school survivor from White River First Nation, who is Catholic, said it felt like the church was “selling their point of view” during the mass. 

Manitoba Survivors and Quebec City

After Pope Francis finished his visit to Edmonton, he traveled across Canada. Still, the weight of his speech in Maskwacis and his stay in Edmonton affected other Residential School survivors across the provinces. For example, Vivian Ketchum, a survivor of the Cecilia Jeffery Residential School in Kenora, who now lives in Winnipeg, felt that the pontiff’s words “glossed over” the whole truth and the extent that these institutions have to this day. Ketchum added, “I think the sincerity might have been there, but I don’t think he fully comprehends the whole situation and what was done to us: second generation, third generation. The loss of language, culture,” in an interview with CBC News. However, Phil Fontaine, the former chief of the Assembly of First Nations and a Residential School survivor, views the apology as a way forward in the healing process. Despite Pope Francis’ neglect to apologize for the church’s role as an institution and the sexual abuse done to the children, Fontaine remains hopeful that the plaintiff’s visit will help move the healing process. 

Quebec City and Final Thoughts

It was not until the Pope’s final days of his visit to Canada did he acknowledge sexual abuse inflicted on vulnerable people. During a prayer service at Quebec City’s Notre-Dame de Quebec Basilica-Cathedral, Francis said the church in Canada is on a new path after being ruined by “the evil perpetrated by some of its sons and daughters.” However, Pope Francis failed to acknowledge that sexual abuse was perpetrated in Residential Schools. The careful wording of sexual abuse given by Pope Francis is the reason many have been quick to jump on his speeches and tour in skeptical ways. Anishinaabe activist Sarain Fox and her cousin Chelsea Brunelle raised a large banner Thursday morning that read “Rescind the doctrine” inside the Basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupre before the mass led by Francis. The Doctrine of Discovery is referred to here in the banner raised by the activists. The doctrine dated back to the 15th century and allowed white European Christians to claim “vacant” land in the name of their sovereigns. The Doctrine of Discovery purposely excluded anyone who was not white or Christian and allowed European settlers to steal the land from First Nations. This begs the question of why this doctrine has not been rescinded. Why is an outdated, xenophobic piece of parchment still referred to in the 21st century? Reconciliation and returning the land to the people of origin is essential when considering the Doctrine of Discovery because the doctrine represents a time society no longer lives in, and the Pope is denouncing those beliefs of supremacy in words, but what about actions? After the Pope visited Canada, there was still much to follow, and many people in the Indigenous community were divided. This article was meant to highlight the events and significance of the Pope’s journey of repentance in Canada and what it meant for Indigenous people and Residential School survivors.  What matters now is what comes next after this historical event. 


Cook, Stephen. (2022). “Hurts and healing: Papal visit stirs emotions of First Nation members in Alberta.” CBC News. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/edmonton/hurts-and-healing-papal-visit-stirs-emotions-of-first-nation-members-in-alberta-1.6524344.

Hobson, Brittany, and Daniela Germano. (2022). “‘Missed Opportunity’: Mixed Reactions to Pope’s Public Mass in Edmonton stadium.” The Abbotsford News.   https://www.abbynews.com/news/missed-opportunity-mixed-reactions-to-popes-public-mass-in-edmonton-stadium/

Hobson, Brittany, and Sidhartha Banerjee. (2022). “Pope Francis denounces ‘evil’ of sexual abuse during service in Quebec City.” Global News. https://globalnews.ca/news/9023430/pope-denounces-evil-sexual-abuse/(2022). “Viaggio Apostolico di Sua Santità Francesco in Canada – Incontro con le Popolazioni Indigene First Nations, Métis e Inuit.” Bolletino Sala Stampa Della Santa Sede. https://press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/it/bollettino/pubblico/2022/07/25/0556/01124.html#en

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