Calls to crisis line spike after Pope's apology for 'deplorable evil' of residential schools

People who provide mental health support across the country have been significantly busier helping those with trauma after Pope Francis arrived in Canada and apologized for the forced assimilation of Indigenous people at residential schools.

For survivors and their families, the pontiff's visit opened old wounds

Pope Francis bows his head behind Indigenous chiefs preparing to perform a traditional dance at a ceremony during his papal visit across Canada in Maskwacis, Alta., on Monday. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details

People who provide mental health support across the country have been significantly busier helping those with trauma after Pope Francis arrived in Canada and apologized for the forced assimilation of Indigenous people at residential schools.

"As soon as we set up, before the Pope made his first address on Monday, we had seen about 125 people come to us in Maskwacis," said Nola Jeffrey, executive director of Tsow-Tun Le Lum Society, a substance abuse and trauma help centre that offers traditional and cultural treatment in Lantzville, B.C.

Jeffrey and her team of elders, survivors and people living with intergenerational trauma were invited by B.C.'s First Nations Health Authority and organizers of the papal visit to come to Alberta to provide support as the Pope apologized, for the first time in Canada, in front of residential school survivors and their families in Maskwacis, Alta., south of Edmonton.

"After [the apology], people just came in droves to us," Jeffrey said. "We didn't leave until the last person that wanted help was finished."

Indigenous Services Canada said the federal government's 24-hour crisis support line has received double the number of callers it usually gets since the Pope arrived for his penitential visit this week.

"The crisis lines are receiving calls from across the country," Kyle Fournier, a spokesperson for Indigenous Services Canada, said in an email Thursday.

"Callers to the crisis lines are expressing a range of different emotions. For some, the Pope's visit and apology may be healing and, for others, it may be triggering. Discussions about the harmful legacy of residential schools are important and can also be difficult for many."

On average, Fournier said The National Indian Residential School Crisis Line received 121 calls a day since January 2022.

But the day the Pope apologized for the cultural destruction and forced assimilation of Indigenous people, the number of callers jumped to 277. The next day, the crisis line received 244 calls.

Fournier said in Alberta, 300 additional mental wellness and cultural support workers were asked to be at papal events. Sixty workers have been asked to be in Quebec and 40 mental health workers are to be on-site in Iqaluit for the papal visit, eight of whom are clinical counsellors.

An Indigenous man wipes away tears after Pope Francis delivered his apology to Indigenous people for the church’s role in residential schools, on Monday. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

For the Pope's visit to Alberta, Jeffrey said she drove from B.C. carrying traditional medicines, including cedar and spruce branches, which people brush themselves with to release negative energy.

Many people also approached Jeffrey to use cold water to wash the tears off their faces, which is done traditionally four times. The water helps with balancing emotions and grounding people.

"The first wash is to honour the Creator, the second wash is in honour of their ancestors, the third wash is to honour their territory and the final wash is when I always say, "This is the most important wash to honour a beautiful and precious you.'"

Jeffery said her team didn't turn anyone away.

"We even had a clergy come to us and the guy that was in charge of security had become depressed and came for help," she said.

The next day, she said, she stayed past midnight with her team in Lac Ste. Anne, northwest of Edmonton, after the Pope participated in a sacred pilgrimage. Jeffrey said many people there also needed help.

She said Canadians need to think about how those who can't let go of their pain can get support for the days, weeks and years to come.

"There's a teaching that it takes seven generations to let go of trauma and so we're just at the tip of this," she said. "My hope is that we can help our people," she added through tears.

"The Pope didn't talk about how the children were raped, beaten, shamed, starved and how they were experimented on. We need to make our people feel good about themselves. So many of our people are dying."

During his address in Maskwacis on Monday, the pontiff apologized for the harmful actions of many members of the church toward First Nations, Métis and Inuit, and the role they played in Canada's "devastating" policy of Indigenous residential schools.

He said the forced assimilation of Indigenous peoples into Christian society destroyed their cultures, severed their families and marginalized generations in ways still being felt today.

He said the memories of the children who never returned from residential schools have left him with a sense of "sorrow, indignation and shame."

"In the face of this deplorable evil, the church kneels before God and implores his forgiveness for the sins of her children," the Pope said Monday during his speech. "I myself wish to reaffirm this, with shame and unambiguously." 

Francis prays at a gravesite at the Ermineskin Cree Nation Cemetery in Maskwacis, on Monday. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Fournier said access to trauma-informed cultural and emotional support services, as well as professional mental health counselling, will continue to be available through the federal government's Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program.

"Community-based supports vary from community to community and can include elder services, traditional healers, Indigenous health support providers and peer counsellors. Professional mental health counselling is also available through this program."

Jeffrey said Indigenous people thrived for thousands of years before colonization.

"Colonization is just a blip in our history," she said. "It's a painful blip, but I know that we can come out of that and be strong and thrive again."

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship, which is not involved in the editorial process.

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools or by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.
Mental health counselling and crisis support is also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat at www.hopeforwellness.ca.


Fakiha Baig is a journalist with the Canadian Press.

With files from CBC