Dear Mom, the Pope is in Canada to meet residential school survivors

This first-person article is by Vivian Ketchum who often writes letters to her late mother to process her feelings. For more information on CBC’s First Person Stories, please see frequently asked questions.

WARNING: This column contains distressing details.

Dear Mom,

I have strange news to share with you.

The Pope is in Canada this month. He visits some Aboriginal communities in Canada. I don’t know what I think of his visit. I think of the words you shared about your time in residential school, at St. Mary’s Indian School in Kenora, Ontario. A Catholic school.

How the nun cut your long black hair. It was part of you and your identity. You said to me, “They made me look like a boy.” I saw the tears in your eyes. The memory still so fresh in your memory even after so many years. Your story, however brief, always annoys me. The attempt to erase your Aboriginal identity. To try to Christianize you.

Your words and my personal past at boarding school do not make me look forward to a visit from the Pope. People say don’t cling to the past. To let go. Mom, how can I let go of the past when it shaped my life? Residential schools have been part of my past and part of your life.

Vivian Ketchum, left, and her mother both attended boarding schools. In this photo taken in the 1990s, Ketchum was screaming to music and his mother was covering her ears with tissues. (Submitted by Vivian Ketchum)

One of my earliest memories was kissing the rosary you held in your hand. Later in your life, you become a Christian. You had your Bible and your faith. You shared your religion with your children. I had a hard time accepting your faith when I was so angry with the church. Any church.

I hated what happened to me at boarding school. Physical and emotional abuse. The unwanted touching that made me feel horrible. Even now, I am not strong enough to put this experience into words. I wanted what I had lost when I was a child. I also wanted my mother. The mom I missed so much at boarding school.

Years later, I too became a Christian. I was not in the tent meetings where you took me, with people singing loudly, to show me your new church life. But I saw the change in you after you sobered up and how your faith helped you. There were no more scary situations like loud parties in the house. So I accepted your faith and made it mine.

A smudge bowl is placed above a Bible.
Vivian Ketchum uses both her Bible and a smudge bowl when she prays. (Vivian Ketchum)

I wanted to keep my part of our Anishinaabe customs. To discover that part of me that was stolen at boarding school. So I stain. I also pray with my hands. No rosary. Mine is not that type of faith. Ribbon skirts, not church dresses.

Today, my Bible rests next to my bowl of purification and native medicines. This is part of my healing journey.

Mom, I walk in two worlds with my faith. I try to find my way in these seemingly incompatible worlds. I don’t want to cut my hair and lose my identity for my Christianity – if I could use that as a metaphor to express the path I’ve created for myself.

Mom, the Pope’s visit brings back old memories for residential school survivors. Trigger them. Awaken these buried traumas. It also creates a divide between those of Christian faith and native spirituality. To forgive or not to forgive. To heal and move on. Reconciliation. To kiss these beads of the rosary.

Your words have colored my perspective on the Pope’s visit. Would his words of “I’m sorry” lift that anger? Will the Pope’s words help me forgive the Catholic Church for what has been done to you? I still carry that anger inside me. Even with my Bible and my lifestyle.

Pope Francis is shown with the chiefs of the four First Nations of Maskwacis, Alberta, before issuing a July 25 apology for the Roman Catholic Church’s involvement in residential schools. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

People are in a real frenzy about this visit. The pope is coming to our house, but it won’t be a visit for tea and bannock. I remember how you used to make fresh bannock and tea when friends came to surprise us. It won’t be that type of visit. Did I tell you that some of the First Nations communities will even be paved so that the pope can enter the community smoothly. I can almost see your eyes rolling in my mind. A lighter side of the story of this Pope’s visit.

Mom, when I read this letter to you, it is so full of personal conflicts that are inside me. Faith. Forgiveness. To heal or not to heal. Then I think of your story about your cut hair. The image of a nun with a pair of scissors. The tears in your eyes.

These are my last thoughts that come to mind when I think of the Pope’s visit.

It’s not enough. It’s not enough.

— Danis (girl)

Support is available to anyone affected by their residential school experience or recent reports.

A National Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line has been established to provide support to former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis hotline: 1-866-925-4419.

Mental health counseling and crisis support is also available 24/7 through the Hope for Wellness Helpline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat at

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