Warning: This story contains disturbing details
Warren Seeseequasis plods through the snowy field where St. Michael’s Indian Residential School once stood.
“Where the other two pines are, that’s where the school was,” says Seeseequasis.
In the adjacent cemetery, crosses and small tombstones mark the graves of former students. When the snow clears, local residents will begin searching for others buried in unmarked graves.
Seeseequasis, a band councilor from neighboring Beardy’s & Okemasis Cree Nation in central Saskatchewan, said many survivors avoided the site.
The deprivations, abuses and crimes committed at St. Michael’s and other residential schools are well documented.
Seeseequasis says much of the poverty, addictions, and health issues his people face today can be traced to school.
That’s why Seeseequasis and many others say Pope Francis and the Catholic Church owe them more than an apology.
“This [pain] is still here. It’s been how many years, and I’m still crying,” survivor Audrey Eyahpaise said in a recent interview in her small apartment a few blocks from the St. Michael site.
“You destroyed us. Now help, help our people.”
A delegation of survivors, Indigenous leaders and representatives of the Catholic Church are in the Vatican this week calling on Pope Francis to come to Canada to deliver a long-awaited apology.
CBC News interviewed Eyahpaise and more than a dozen other survivors, family members and supporters in Canada. Most say a papal apology would be welcome, but the Catholic Church must first provide the promised compensation and documents.
“You are supposed to preach love, care and respect for your fellow man, but if we have to beg them to apologize and keep those promises, I don’t think they understand,” the cousin said. ‘Audrey Eyahpaise, Garnet Eyahpaise. .
“We lost a lot of things. It was taken away from us. For many years I couldn’t say ‘I love you’ to my children.”
In 2006, in the face of billions in lawsuits from survivors and their descendants, Christian churches, the federal government and survivors signed the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.
This led to the creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), a healing fund and an agreement on compensation.
The Anglican, Presbyterian and United Churches promptly paid their full amount. The Catholic Church did not.
Catholic pledges totaled $79 million. They included a cash payment, a fundraising campaign and “services in kind”. Survivors and experts say the Catholic Church has been far from each of them.
Several years ago, a Saskatchewan judge approved a controversial nationwide buyout requested by Catholic Church lawyers. The federal government appealed, but later withdrew its appeal and the case was dismissed.
A recent CBC News investigation found that millions of dollars earmarked for survivors instead went to Catholic Church lawyers, trustees and fundraising companies. It also showed that Catholic officials had spent more than $300 million on church building projects during that time, while claiming they had no additional money for survivors.
Some experts estimate the Catholic Church still owes the survivors more than $60 million, plus interest for delays and breach of contract.
Saskatoon Cree attorney Donald Worme, who served as lead counsel for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said the Vatican was worth billions and should foot the bill.
“The Catholic Church has played a board game all over the world. It operates hundreds, if not thousands, of businesses even in this country that own their assets. And far too often those assets are lost in public scrutiny,” Worme said. .
Last September, amid growing anger over the thousands of unmarked graves discovered across Canada, as well as new revelations about the failure of the compensation effort, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops announced a new $30 million fundraising campaign for survivors. They said it was a top priority and all national details would be released by November.
Now, four months after that deadline, a CCCB official has emailed a response indicating that some individual dioceses are making progress, but the national plan is still being developed.
“I’ll let you know when we have more to say on this,” CCCB’s Jonathan Lesarge wrote.
The CCCB declined a request for an interview.
Worme said he and other members of the TRC had worked hard for years to get the Catholic Church to turn over its files on residential schools, held both in Canada and at the Vatican. Since the discovery of unmarked graves across Canada, various Catholic orders have pledged to open their archives, but Worme and others say very little has been done.
Worme said these are just two more examples in the Catholic Church’s long list of broken promises.
“I think their actions speak louder than words,” Worme said.
Eleanore Sunchild, a lawyer for the Thunderchild First Nation, who has represented thousands of survivors, agreed.
Sunchild said there must be justice for this century-long genocide against Indigenous peoples.
She said she accepted an invitation to join the Vatican delegation to ensure this was not just a public relations exercise for the Vatican and the bishops.
“I actually feel conflicted because I’ve heard thousands of stories from residential school survivors. The most heinous were about the Roman Catholic Church,” Sunchild said.
“So I hope the Pope hears what survivors and representatives are telling them – that they have caused widespread pain, anguish and suffering. I really hope they take action to repair the damage.”
Back home in Saskatchewan, Audrey Eyahpaise works to help people struggling with addiction and mental health issues.
She says the church records would help survivors learn the whole truth about the schools, and the money could fund programs for future generations.
She hopes Pope Francis and other Catholic Church leaders will do the right thing and take action.
“You’re going to be up there one day. You’re going to be judged one day, you know,” Eyahpaise said.
“You destroyed us, now help us. Help our people.”
Support is available for anyone affected by their residential school experience and for those triggered by the latest reports.
A National Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line has been established to provide support to survivors and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis hotline: 1-866-925-4419. A Saskatchewan-based line is now available by dialing 306-522-7494.