Buffy Sainte-Marie wants more than just an apology from the Pope

At 81, award-winning artist and activist is determined to use her platform to talk about realities of residential schools, and call for the dissolution of the Doctrine of Discovery.

Award-winning artist and activist calls for dissolution of Doctrine of Discovery

Buffy Sainte-Marie: ‘I don't care about an apology’

11 months ago
Duration 7:38
Songwriter and activist Buffy Sainte-Marie talks to The National’s Adrienne Arsenault about using her platform to educate, the path to reconciliation, and what it would take for a papal apology to have real meaning for Indigenous people.

Warning: This story contains distressing details.

Songwriter, educator and human rights advocate Buffy Sainte-Marie says the Pope's upcoming visit to Canada and expected apology for the church's involvement in the residential school system won't mean a thing if he doesn't call for the dissolution of the Doctrine of Discovery.

"The apology is just the beginning, of course," she said.

The doctrine is an international framework based on a series of decrees from the Pope, called "papal bulls," that were released in the 1400s and 1500s. This framework laid the legal and moral foundation for how Canada and other countries came to be colonized by European settlers.

As Sainte-Marie put it, "The Doctrine of Discovery essentially says it's okay if you're a [Christian] European explorer … to go anywhere in the world and either convert people and enslave, or you've got to kill them."

As noted by the Assembly of First Nations, legal arguments relying on the Doctrine of Discovery continue to affect modern court rulings. As laid out in a 2018 document, the AFN says that doctrine is the root cause of multiple historical and ongoing injustices against Indigenous peoples.

Saint-Marie made the comments during a wide-ranging interview with The National's Adrienne Arsenault. The two discussed recent headlines related to Indigenous people, as well as her long career as an artist and activist.

A woman sits in front of some trees.
Buffy Sainte-Marie said that when she works to raise awareness about the history and impact of residential schools, 'You're not trying to scold ... you're trying to inform.' (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Sainte-Marie is as outspoken and vibrant as ever. At 81 years old, she bounced into the interview in Toronto with the jovial energy of a child, then proceeded to say she was actually pretty tired. Even an Oscar-winning songwriter and an Indigenous icon isn't immune to the airline problems and delays currently plaguing North America, it seems.

"I just spent three days in Denver Airport sleeping on benches and the floor and everything," she said.

"Yeah, everyone's overwhelmed and it was just awful. But I'm good, I'm glad I'm here."

A woman sits in a chair in the background speaking to a woman in the foreground.
Sainte-Marie, left, speaks with the CBC’s Adrienne Arsenault at the CBC Broadcast Centre in Toronto about her career as an artist and activist. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

When asked about her optimistic demeanour and ever-present smile even in the face of troubling times, Sainte-Marie sat back to think before responding.

"I'm kind of the same way as I was when I was a little kid. Very young, I learned that sometimes grown-ups are wrong and kids are right," she said.

"For instance, I was told I couldn't be a musician because I couldn't read music. Therefore you can't be a musician, you know? I was told I couldn't be Indigenous because there aren't any more around here — I've kept that with me my whole life.

"And when somebody comes up to me and says something that to me is just kind of not right on, I make it fun to find out how it could be made better. And that does something for me."

A woman sits in a grassy valley with a guitar.
Sainte-Marie in Saskatchewan during the filming of a 1994 CBC special. (CBC Still Image Library)

To look back at Sainte-Marie's career is to see an artist determined to use her platform to counter cultural stereotypes and talk about the realities of the treatment of Indigenous people.

In 1966, at the age of 25, she appeared on CBC Television's TBA and played My Country 'Tis of Thy People You're Dying, a song detailing the atrocities of Canada's residential school programs. Before singing it, she told the host about her outrage at stereotypical portrayals of Indigenous people.

WATCH | Buffy Sainte-Marie comments on Indigenous stereotypes in 1966:

Buffy Sainte-Marie comments on Indigenous stereotypes in 1966

11 months ago
Duration 1:21
25-year-old Buffy Sainte-Marie appears on CBC Television’s TBA in 1966. She expresses concern and dismay over stereotypical portrayals of Indigenous people in movies and history books.

"That's the way I have felt all along. But it's not just me," she told Arsenault, after watching the archive clip. "We've all been feeling that way. But I have a platform, so I've been in a position to shoot my mouth off."

Sainte-Marie's message hasn't always been well received, with interviewers asking things like, "Do you worry people say, 'I wonder if she ever has fun?'" in a 1986 interview on Midday, or simply diminishing her concerns by describing her as an "emotional woman" on As It Happens in 1977.

As Arsenault described those interviews as being awkward, Sainte-Marie nodded and summed up the patronizing attitudes she faced this way: "Oh yes, the Little Indian Girl must be mistaken. She's nice and she's cute. We like her. But she's really mistaken. It can't be true."

WATCH | Buffy Sainte-Marie on how some people have tried to dismiss her messages about Indigenous history:

Buffy Sainte-Marie on how some people have tried to dismiss her messages about Indigenous history

11 months ago
Duration 0:34
Songwriter and activist Buffy Sainte-Marie talks to CBC's Adrienne Arsenault about how interviewers have often tried to dismiss her message when she has tried to counter Indigenous stereotypes and convey the realities of residential schools.

Sainte-Marie said it's an attitude she still faces. Yet she considers it an honour to use the platform she's been given to inform others. To stave off the frustration, she said she leans on something she learned before she became a songwriter, while doing her teaching degree.

"You're not trying to scold the student for not knowing. You're trying to inform them."

As part of her advocacy, she has been trying to get the Canadian Museum For Human Rights in Winnipeg to take a closer and more honest look at atrocities committed in North America. She said she would like to see some of the tools used to torture children at Canada's residential schools on display.

"Children were tortured," she said, referring to the use of an electric chair at St. Anne's Indian Residential School in Fort Albany, Ont. "They want my guitar strap and they want handwritten lyrics … happy, showy things. But I want them to put the damn electric chair right there and to actually show people the doggone Doctrine of Discovery."

When asked about the 2021 discovery of potential unmarked graves on the grounds of the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation, Sainte-Marie said she sees it as progress.

"Here's my attitude. The good news about the bad news is that more people know about it. Of course I was heartbroken like everybody else, and horrified. But it's not as though I didn't know," she said. "The recent discoveries are so important because it's proof."

A woman gestures with her hands.
Sainte-Marie said she considers it an honour to use her platform as an artist and activist to help inform others. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

The life and legacy of Sainte-Marie is the subject of a new five-part CBC podcast entitled Buffy, the first episode of which is being released June 21. Despite the retrospective, Sainte-Marie says she prefers to think about what's next.

She continues to paint and perform. And in recent years she has taken to writing children's books.

"I'm always looking forward," she said.

"I'm like a kid when I'm doing whatever it is that I'm doing. I just don't have anybody giving me any red lights when it comes to art, and so I can go anywhere."

Watch the interview with Buffy Sainte-Marie from The National.

Support is available for anyone affected by the lingering effects of residential school and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for residential school survivors and others affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

Watch full episodes of The National on CBC Gem, the CBC's streaming service.


Greg Hobbs


Greg Hobbs is a producer with The National.