Residential school survivors say they should decide when and where papal visit takes place

Wendel Starblanket and AJ Felix roam the windswept grounds of the former Lebret Indian Industrial Residential School in southern Saskatchewan, imagining what it would be like to welcome Pope Francis there.

The Roman Catholic-run boarding school was one of the largest in Canada. For these two survivors, Lebret is a natural fit for the long-awaited papal apology on Canadian soil.

“The apology should come to the heart of our territories. This is it,” said Felix, who was forced to attend school 500 kilometers south of his home on Sturgeon Lake Cree Nation.

Last week, after meeting with a Canadian delegation, Pope Francis issued an apology for the actions of some Church members who worked in the schools.

Survivors have been calling for a papal apology in their home turf for decades, and those calls were formalized in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 2015 final report. Momentum and pressure grew last summer after the discovery of more than 1,000 unmarked graves, as well as a CBC News investigation revealing new details about the Church’s failed reparations efforts.

CBC News interviewed survivors and Indigenous leaders in Saskatchewan and elsewhere. They suggested several locations, including the following.


The site where the Lebret Indian Residential School was located. (Ntawnis Piapot/CBC)

One of the first residential schools in Canada to open in 1884, the Lebret Qu’Appelle Indian Industrial Residential School was also one of the last to close, more than a century later in 1998.

It is located on the Wa-Pii Moos-Toosis (White Calf) Reserve of the Star Blanket Cree Nation, west of the village of Lebret. A ground penetrating radar search is underway at the site 80 kilometers east of Regina to identify unmarked remains.

Tk’emlups te Secwépemc

In May 2021, Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc leaders announced that they had identified over 200 possible unmarked burial sites near the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.

The announcement sparked widespread outrage and grief, leading other First Nations to launch their own research or demand the release of documents still held by the Roman Catholic Church.

Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir was a member of the recent Vatican delegation and presented Francis with a handwritten invitation.


In June, Cowessess First Nation leaders announced that their search had led to the identification of 751 unmarked remains on the grounds of the former Marieval Indian Residential School, the largest of its kind to date.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited the site last year to hand over child welfare responsibilities to the First Nation, located 160 kilometers east of Regina.


Archaeological records and oral history indicate that Wanuskewin, located just north of Saskatoon, has been a gathering place for Indigenous peoples for thousands of years. (Wanuskewin Heritage Park)

In 2017, following the TRC’s call to action, considerable effort was made to bring Pope Francis to Wanuskewin Heritage Park for an apology.

Located just north of Saskatoon, archaeological records and oral history indicate that it has been a gathering place for Indigenous people for thousands of years. Although not an Indian or Catholic residential school site, there are several nearby, including St. Michael’s Indian Residential School.

Lac Ste. Anne

Located northwest of Edmonton, Lac Ste. Anne was raised by Pope Francis when he addressed the delegation. An annual pilgrimage in late July now draws thousands of people to the lake for masses and spiritual events in English, Cree and other languages.

First called Wakamne (God’s Lake) by the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation and Manito Sahkahigan (Spirit Lake) by the Crees, the name was changed to “Lac Ste Anne” by the Catholic priest who established a mission at the site in mid 1800s.

However, some survivors interviewed say that all apologies should go to all survivors, not just those who have chosen to remain Catholic. Some would not feel comfortable attending a traditionally Catholic event.

Leaders agree on other key points

There were differing opinions on the location of a papal visit, but there was general agreement on four other points.

First, any other apology must acknowledge the complicity of the entire Catholic Church and the Vatican, not just certain individuals.

“It was the whole Church. The whole Church hurt our people. When [Francis] said ‘some people’, that kind of put me off,” Felix said.

Second, action must accompany any apology. This includes the release of all school and grave records, as well as the full payment of compensation that some estimate at over $60 million. It also includes the repatriation of artifacts, the repudiation of the colonial doctrine of discovery, and the prosecution and extradition of abusive priests.

Church officials say talks are underway, but Pope Francis did not mention any of these issues in his apology and address to delegates.

“It’s not really nice to hear that. [apology] while they have not even settled the outstanding issues. It’s just another way of talking to us with a forked tongue,” Starblanket said.

Third, all expenses—about $50 million to $100 million for previous papal visits—should be paid for entirely by the Vatican. Instead, any money from Canadian taxpayers or Catholics should go directly to programs for survivors and their descendants.

“The Vatican is worth billions. They should be paying. It’s time to right the wrongs, and they can start there,” Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations leader Bobby Cameron said.

FSIN leader Bobby Cameron said the Vatican should pay all expenses associated with a papal visit to Canada to apologize for residential schools. (Radio Canada)

Finally, where, when, and all important decisions must be made by the survivors themselves.

“For all of this to resonate with survivors and move us forward, survivors need to feel part of this historic process,” said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of Indian Chiefs. of British Columbia.

“For survivors to decide where, how, what, when and why, it puts more trust in the whole journey,” Cameron said.

CBC News requested an interview with Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller to ask if the federal government would fund Pope Francis’ trip, but an official said Miller was unavailable.

Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops official Jonathan Lesarge said “meaningful discussions” are underway with the federal government and Indigenous peoples. He said more details should be available soon.

“As Catholics, we believe in the restorative power of apologies, but recognize that the apologies from the Bishops of Canada and Pope Francis are only one step in the continuing journey of healing and reconciliation, and must be accompanied by action. concrete,” Lesarge wrote in an email.

Back on the Lebret school site, AJ Félix and Wendel Starblanket say we have to get started. That afternoon, they oversee a sweat lodge for members of the Peepeekisis Cree Nation, helping them reconnect to their spirituality.

“These schools were a direct attack on our culture, on our family units. It hurt us a lot. Now we’re trying to get that back,” Felix said. “So when you hurt someone, you apologize. But you also try to fix things.