Pope visit to Alberta
Courtesy Cora Voyageur

Aug. 12, 2022

UCalgary residential school survivor shares reactions from Pope’s apology

Apology first step toward a new relationship

When Pope Francis visited Canada to apologize for the Catholic Church’s role in the abuse of Canadian Indigenous children in residential schools, the trip held more significance than ever for many people, including Dr. Cora Voyageur, PhD, professor, Department of Sociology.

Voyageur is not only a UCalgary professor, but she’s also a residential school survivor and member of the Indian Residential Survivors Circle. She teaches about residential schools and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in her graduate and undergraduate courses.

At just nine years old, she was forced to attend residential schools, experiencing first-hand the abuses that were perpetrated upon so many Indigenous children. Today, she is an active participant in truth and reconciliation and travelled to Maskwacis, Alta., with her sister Dorothy to hear Pope Francis’s apology. Her sister Lillian, who also attended residential school with them, chose not to attend any of the papal events.

The Maskwacis event was the first of many in which the Pope delivered apologies to the Indigenous community in Canada. Voyageur created a video diary with CBC’s The National news program of her experience preparing to attend the event, and also sat down with UCalgary News to provide her first-hand perspective of the papal visit.

UCalgary professor Cora Voyageur and her sister Lillian attend Pope Francis’ apology.

UCalgary professor Cora Voyageur, left, and her sister Dorothy attend Pope Francis’s apology.

Courtesy Cora Voyageur

Why was travelling to Maskwacis to hear Pope Francis’s apology important to you?

While I was feeling trepidation and wasn’t sure what to expect, it was important for me to go to see the Pope apologize. I wanted to hear it with my own ears and to be there and witness this apology. I’m glad I went — I felt it was validation of what Indigenous people have said all along — that as children, grievous harms were perpetrated against us.

A banner that held the names of the more than 4,000 Indigenous children that died (and whose names were recorded) at residential schools was held by people who wove their way through the crowd was a haunting sight.

I went with my sister, and I’m happy that we were able to share this experience. There were thousands of other residential school survivors at the event hosted by the Ermineskin First Nation on Treaty #6 territory. It was a collective turning of the page for some of us.

However, it was a very long and emotional day. There were mixed emotions expressed by people in the crowd with some sobbing, while others were elated. I was thankful for the traditional healing centres that provided an opportunity to cleanse ourselves with smudges and cedar brushing.

What did you think of the Pope’s apology?

He seemed earnest in his delivery. But I wanted Pope Francis to go further with his apology. The pontiff stated that the abuses were committed by “so many Christians.” To me, this meant that only individual people perpetrated the "evils" and that the church was unaware. This simply is not true.

As a residential school survivor, I wanted him to apologize on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church and the system it created (and maintained) that served as the site for the abuses. 

A significant aspect was left out — namely, the sexual abuse of children. I was taken aback by that. He talked about the cultural, emotional and physical abuse, but not the sexual abuse that was rampant at residential schools. I wanted  that to be acknowledged as part of the apology.

Now that an apology has been made, is there anything else you would like to see? What’s next?

There are other things that I would like to see. For example, I would like to see access to records;  the Doctrine of Discovery, as well as the Papal Bills to be rescinded. I want to see the return of artifacts and lands. I would also like the Roman Catholic Church to fulfill its commitment for financial reparation. The Roman Catholic Church is $21 million short on its obligation.

The apology was the first step, and now that the apology has been made, the Indian Residential Survivors Circle has been asked by the Congress of Catholic Bishops to put together a one-page document that serves as a concept paper for our relationship going forward. There must be a new relationship.

One thing we all need to realize is that this just isn’t about First Nations people — this is all of Canada. All Canadians must recognize that this is a dark stain on our history that it was based on racism.

There are people saying that our claims of abuse were exaggerated. The Pope’s apology was validation and should silence the doubters. This abuse really did happen and it was intentional.