Mount Cashel Innu Survivor Demands Apology from Indigenous Peoples During Pope’s Visit to Canada

When Pope Francis celebrates a mass at the National Shrine of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré on July 28, an Innu hopes he will do more than lead the congregation.

Penote Antuan says he wants to see the pope apologize for the harm Catholics have done to indigenous people.

The Pope apologized to Indigenous delegations in Rome earlier this spring for the Catholic Church’s role in Canada’s residential school system, but Antuan, a survivor of the Mount Cashel orphanage, says a bigger apology is necessary to heal.

“I hope to hear Pope Francis, to hear him say we’re sorry. What happened to all the indigenous people, people who live in Canada or elsewhere,” he said.

“And it will give us a help, at least a help to get away from the burden that we already have.”

Antuan was sent from the Sheshatshiu Innu First Nation to the Mount Cashel Orphanage in St. John’s in 1958, when he was nine years old. He said he was told it would be for a better education, but that’s not what happened.

“You can’t imagine how we were treated because we were Innu,” he said.

“I’m 73 now.… My scars are still there. Still there.”

Antuan said he couldn’t talk about what happened to him at the Mount Cashel orphanage and he didn’t talk about it with his parents or children, but his faith helped him through. times when he had heavy burdens, including suicidal thoughts when he was a young man. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

Mount Cashel is now infamous for a sex abuse scandal and a cover-up. A 2019 court case found that the Roman Catholic Episcopal Corporation of St. John’s was vicariously liable for sexual abuse at the orphanage in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.

Antuan said he still couldn’t talk about what he went through at the orphanage. He said he did not tell his parents or his seven children about his experience.

“I never gave up my faith”

Through it all, Antuan said his faith got him through. He said his faith helped him overcome his suicidal thoughts as a young man and he has a deep connection to the Catholic Church today.

“I never gave up on my faith…Although, I mean, I had a heavy burden at times,” he said.

“When I grew up, I had more beliefs in my religion. It helped me a lot.”

A man stands in the center of a church in a plain shirt and green jacket.
Antuan said his faith and his connection to the Catholic Church were strong, but he wanted to see the pope apologize for the wrongs caused by Catholics to indigenous peoples. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

Antuan is one of hundreds who travel to the Sainte-Anne festival outside of Quebec City. He said he was one of the people to suggest that the Innu of Labrador join the Innu of Quebec for the annual pilgrimage. The feast is held annually on July 26 in honor of Saint Anne, considered the grandmother of Jesus in Christian and Islamic tradition.

He drove the Sheshatshiu Innu First Nation bus to the train at Churchill Falls as a young man to transport elders for the pilgrimage. That first year in the 1980s, there were 36 people and it just kept growing, he says.

“I’m proud of my people who want to go to St. Anne so they can pray, so they can meditate with St. Anne’s Day,” Antuan said.

A priest is seated in front of his altar wearing a pink shirt.
Father Joe Pichai said the annual Saint Anne pilgrimage is important to his congregation. He said up to 1,000 people could travel there from Labrador. (Heidi Atter/CBC)

Father Joe Pichai of Tshitshitua Shshep (St. Joseph’s) Church in Sheshatshiu said up to 1,000 Innu from Labrador were traveling. He says he is aware of 98 vehicles and one chartered flight from the First Nation to Quebec. Pichai said it was an important religious experience.

“People, elders, they shared that when they travel up there, they even experience miracles in Sainte-Anne,” he said.

“They collected waters and they are used for when they were evils.”

Akat Piwas is the only elder who still sings in the Mushuau Innu dialect

Hundreds also travel from the Mushuau Innu First Nation in Natuashish.

Chief John Nui said organizers have been working behind the scenes for at least a month and people have been eagerly awaiting the first pilgrimage since before the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think a lot of people were very excited to go there,” Nui said.

“The pope’s visit, you know, puts a lot more excitement there. And there’s a lot of people hanging out with other elders, with the kids.”

He said Saint Anne’s Day is a time when people pray for loved ones to recover from illness and injury.

Nui said that while there may be a range of reactions to seeing the pope, it’s something a lot of Natuashish people are interested in.

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