Standing outside the Vatican on Friday, Adrian N. Gunner wanted to call his grandparents.
As a great leader of Quebec’s Cree youth, Gunner had traveled to Rome to meet with representatives of the Roman Catholic Church. His grandfather and grandmother had been forced to attend the Mohawk Institute Indian residential school in Brantford, Ontario.
He said he did not expect the church leader to acknowledge the suffering and abuse that occurred there.
“I was amazed,” Gunner said in an interview with CBC Montreal. Dawncalling from St. Peter’s Square.
“I’m at a loss for words, but I feel like today is definitely the first step.”
Pope Francis apologized on Friday for the conduct of some members of the Roman Catholic Church in Canada’s residential school system, after a week of talks with First Nations, Inuit and Métis delegations.
“For the deplorable conduct of these members of the Catholic Church, I ask God’s forgiveness and want to tell you with all my heart, I am truly sorry. And I join my brothers, the Canadian bishops, in asking your forgiveness. “
Over 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend residential schools between the 1880s and 1996, and over 60% of the schools were run by the Catholic Church.
WATCH | Indigenous delegates react to Pope Francis’ apology on residential schools:
Gunner said it was important for young people to be present for the pope’s apology.
“It’s us who are going to take the next steps after. To continue the legacy and also to remember where we’ve been and to know where we’re going,” he said.
The next step, on Canadian soil
Speaking to reporters on Friday, Cree Nation of Quebec Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty said the Pope’s acknowledgment of the abuse and mistreatment of Indigenous people had a far greater impact on her than just hearing “I’m sorry”.
“He really said how chilling it was that there was a determined effort to instill a sense of inferiority, to rob people of their cultural identity. The fact that it was recognized was […] really a pivotal statement.”
Gull-Masty was part of the delegation and said the pope’s apology seemed sincere. Now she looks forward to him meeting residential school survivors privately on Canadian soil.
Pope Francis has said he hopes to visit Canada “in the days” around the feast of Saint Anne at the church, which falls on July 26.
“Seeing our survivors, hearing their stories in person and really sharing this moment intimately” will demonstrate her commitment to reconciliation, Gull-Masty said.
Jean-Charles Pietacho, head of the Innu Council of Ekuanitshit, said the survivors deserved at least that.
“There were children who never returned to their families. The least the pope could do is come, officially, to apologize to those families, to the nations,” he said.
Pietacho said he wants to see what concrete actions the church will take to support him. He pointed to the fact that scholars studying residential schools still do not have access to the Vatican archives, for example.
The evidence suggests that some archival documents regarding institutions in Canada are now only available in Rome. Some have called on the Vatican to release the historical documents, which could help piece together what happened to some indigenous children.
“It’s a long road,” Pietacho said.
For Gunner, Quebec’s great Cree youth leader, his role in the Vatican allowed him to honor his family’s legacy.
While in Rome, he presented the Pope with a gift: traditional snowshoes handcrafted by Waskaganish elder Sanders Weistche. They were no different from the ones his grandfather, former Cree Grand Chief Billy Diamond, presented to Pope John Paul II when he met him in the 1980s.
“By passing them on, I gave [the Pope] a message that symbolizes that we are still here. Our language and our culture are still very strong.”