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Indigenous peoples react to the pope's apology for Canada's residential schools


All this week, Pope Francis has been in Canada on what he calls a pilgrimage of penance. He's been going around the country to apologize for the Catholic Church's role in Canada's residential school system. This was a program funded by the Canadian government and administered by the Catholic Church that was aimed at erasing the culture and language of indigenous people.


POPE FRANCIS: (Through interpreter) I have come to your native lands to tell you in person of my sorrow, to implore God's forgiveness, healing and reconciliation.

CHANG: This apology from Pope Francis this week comes after years of allegations detailing abuse and neglect at these residential boarding schools. Stephanie Scott is a member of the Anishinaabe from Roseau River First Nation. She's also the executive director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, which gathers and preserves the testimony of survivors. She was at the pope's speech in Maskwacis, Alberta, earlier this week. And she spoke with me from Winnipeg, Canada, Treaty 1 territory. And she started by telling me about a very important item - the National Student Memorial Register.

STEPHANIE SCOTT: We wanted to bring a National Student Memorial Register. And what that is, is it's a 50-meter-long red cloth that holds the names of 4,120 children that died in residential school. And so it's a very powerful symbol of, you know, the harms that happened to the little ones that attended those schools and didn't return.

CHANG: Yeah.

SCOTT: And when we got there, it was very, you know, haphazard in the way that they were going to honor and respect these children. The pope, in the end, did up having a private witness. He blessed the cloth. He kissed the cloth. And for the survivors and the NCTR staff and me, that was a moment to recognize that he actually had paid attention to all the children that had died in those schools. And for me, as a daughter of a residential school survivor, that's an opportunity and one step towards reconciliation.

CHANG: Do you feel that others felt similarly? Like, when they listened to his remarks, when they met with him? I mean, what are you hearing from your friends, other members of indigenous communities, about how they personally received this apology?

SCOTT: It was a mixed reaction. Even though they had heard and witnessed his apology, they were very emotional about it. It was very heavy. We also traveled with one of our elders, who's a survivor, who was actually fathered by a priest in the residential school. So people weren't readily to accept. You know, he said many welcome things, but I was struck by what he didn't say.

CHANG: Really? Like what? What did you want him to say that he did not?

SCOTT: Well, I think it was really important that, you know, they acknowledged the harms that had been done, that they should have acknowledged the children that had died, that had suffered horrific physical and sexual abuse and the fact that they were going to make reparations - and those are things in regard to returning land - you know, really supporting the healing. And sometimes that is financially because it's going to take a lot of resources to support community members on their path to healing. I know that he was making a commitment in order to support that, but it really needs to have actions.

CHANG: Right.

SCOTT: So that's really what the survivors that we were with were looking for.

CHANG: May I ask, as you've been working to document these stories from survivors, what has been the most challenging part of that work for you personally?

SCOTT: For me personally - I'll tell you a little bit about my history just so you can understand. I was born and raised here in Winnipeg, Manitoba. My mother is a residential school survivor. She was running away back and forth from the schools, became pregnant. You know, the school sent her home to her community. She was giving birth to me, went to the children's hospital. Back then, they were still automatically taking children away. So she held me once as a young mother at the age of 16-years-old. You know, and I was automatically put into the system, the child welfare system, because that's what was happening to Indigenous children back then. So I didn't see her again until I was 28 years of age.


SCOTT: So I am driven - personally, professionally - in order to make this change because I think, as a young child, what that would mean to her. And it was devastating to her. You know, she had a lot of mental health challenges, as did I, because you grow up without your community. You grow up without the lack of understanding, without the power of your people and, you know, the strength that comes from your community, your language, your ceremonies, your traditions.

CHANG: Is there a story that has stayed with you, a particular story?

SCOTT: We were out in Sioux Lookout, and there was a granny that came to me that was about 70 years of age. And she sat down with me, and she said that when she was a child - they were about 6 and 7 years old, her and her friend, and they hated the schools. They wanted to run away from the school because of the abuse and harms that they were suffering. And so these two little girls hid clothing outside of the school in the bush in order to run away from the school, in order to make it home. They put on those clothes, and they ran far away from the school and made it home. And I thought, you know, 6 and 7?

CHANG: Right.

SCOTT: Those are the age of my grandchildren. And I thought, how powerful they were in order to hide clothing in the dead of winter to get home to their family that loved them...

CHANG: The courage that took.

SCOTT: ...Because that's where they felt safe.

CHANG: Yeah.

SCOTT: The courage that it took to do that and the intelligence of those young children, that's really what stuck with me. And I think that, you know, everyone that was trying to run away and made it home from those schools, more power to them because they were running for a reason. And those are the stories that we can't forget.

CHANG: Well, for people outside Canada, can you talk about why gathering and archiving these records that you're collecting, this testimony, why it is so important.

SCOTT: To have the personal survivor oral history and record in the archive paired with records, paired with community narratives, is essential to understanding the truth. And we still do not have the full truth of what happened in Canada to all those 150,000 children that attended the schools. You know, records were destroyed. We're losing our elders and survivors and knowledge keepers at a very fast pace. So we need the understanding from their perspective, what really happened. And they were children. Like, we can't forget those were children that were in those schools. You know, understanding the illness, the malnutrition and the experiments - it's all important to preserving the truth of residential schools so that - in the hopes that it can never happen again.

No matter where I was in this country - and when we were, you know, working with survivors in order to share their statements, they said, I'm telling you this because I never want this to happen again. So we've got, you know, decades of work to do, and we're here to do that work for them. And we'll continue to do it. And I'll continue to do it until I can no longer, you know, preserve that experience.

CHANG: Stephanie Scott is the executive director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. Thank you very much for sharing this time with us.

SCOTT: (Non-English language spoken). Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Taylor Hutchison