Skepticism, wariness and hope as Pope Francis prepares to arrive in Canada

To this day, Flo Buffalo doesn't drink milk — not since two nuns force-fed her the sour milk she had refused at the Catholic-run Ermineskin Indian Residential School for Indigenous children that she attended in the 1960s.

Pontiff's Alberta visit will include stops in Edmonton, Maskwacis and Lac Ste. Anne

A woman stands in a hallway.
Flo Buffalo, a survivor of the Ermineskin residential school, stands for a portrait at the Montana First Nation band office. Pope Francis will visit Maskwacis, where he's scheduled to make a sweeping apology for the abuses at a system designed to sever Indigenous children from their tribal, family and religious bonds. (Jessie Wardarski/The Associated Press)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

To this day, Flo Buffalo doesn't drink milk — not since two nuns force-fed her the sour milk she had refused at the Catholic-run Ermineskin Indian Residential School for Indigenous children that she attended in the 1960s.

Holding out her right hand, she showed how she has never been able to fully straighten it out since a nun severely beat her with a stick.

"The nuns, they were real mean," Buffalo said.

With international attention focusing on the former school in Maskwacis as Pope Francis visits Monday to apologize for abuses in a system designed to sever Indigenous children from their tribal, family and religious bonds, people such as Buffalo are voicing a range of skepticism, wariness and hope.

Maskwacis, 100 kilometres south of Edmonton, is made up of four First Nations: Samson Cree Nation, Ermineskin Cree Nation, Louis Bull Tribe and Montana First Nation.

Buffalo, a member of the Samson Cree Nation, doesn't often talk about her two years at the school. But ahead of the pontiff's visit, she sat down to relate her experiences to Associated Press journalists and a small group of teen girls who are learning about the traumatic legacy of the schools.

Speaking in the council chambers of the Montana First Nation, where she now works, Buffalo recalled that the nuns, who were white, beat the girls when they spoke in their native Cree instead of English.

At the same time, Buffalo, 67, said she often defied the nuns.

"I scared the hell out of them, because I wouldn't put up with their ... " she said, completing the sentence with a mischievous chuckle.

People standing in a church.
Parishioners attend the rededication ceremony of Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples in Edmonton. In 2020, the church was damaged in a large fire and has now been renovated ahead of Pope Francis's visit. (Jessie Wardarski/The Associated Press)

Buffalo still considers herself Catholic. But she's not going to attend Monday's event with Francis — she doesn't want to deal with the crowds, and the ones she holds responsible are the nuns who abused her and never offered an apology while they were alive.

"It shouldn't be him apologizing," Buffalo said. "It should be them."

When Mavis Moberly heard the Pope was coming, the news triggered some of the trauma she carries from her years at a residential school in northern Alberta. But after tears, prayers and a traditional smudging ceremony, a purification rite with scented plants, she found herself looking forward to hearing the pope's apology.

"Maybe it's going to help me to heal and to have a little bit more inner peace," Moberly said after last Sunday's mass at Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples, a Catholic parish in Edmonton oriented to Indigenous people and culture.

The papal apology is years, if not generations, in the making.

A woman sits at a desk.
Rose Pipestem, a survivor of the Ermineskin residential school, was placed in the school when she was three, after her mother died. (Jessie Wardarski/The Associated Press)

From the 19th century into most of the 20th, Canada's government collaborated with Catholic and Protestant churches to run residential schools in "an education system in name only," designed to weaken tribal identities and Indigenous resistance to land grabs, according to a 2015 report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

It identified 139 schools, the majority Catholic-run, where about 150,000 students were sent.

"Children were abused, physically and sexually," the report said, adding that schools were unsanitary and unsafe facilities where thousands of children died of disease, fire and other causes.

For decades, various Catholic and Protestant church groups have offered apologies, and Pope Benedict XVI in 2009 expressed his "personal anguish."

But the painful history took on new urgency last year when surveys of former schools with ground-penetrating radar found evidence of hundreds of unmarked graves.

Francis met with an Indigenous delegation from Canada this spring and apologized "for the deplorable conduct of those members of the Catholic Church" involved with the schools. He also heeded survivors' calls to make an apology on Canadian soil, leading to Monday's event where thousands of attendees are expected.

A man stands in a church.
Papaschase Elder Fernie Marty stands in the chapel at the newly-renovated Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples in Edmonton. The building has been under renovation after a fire, and they have hurried to be ready for Pope Francis’ visit at the end of the month. (Amber Bracken/The Canadian Press)

Today, the Ermineskin residential school is gone. In its place stands a newer set of school buildings, run by the four Cree nations in and around Maskwacis. A large teepee in front of the secondary school demonstrates how educators are promoting pride in the once-suppressed Indigenous culture.

Rose Pipestem, a member of the Montana First Nation who is also a survivor of the Ermineskin school, said she will try to see the Pope. But like Buffalo, she believes the perpetrators should have apologized.

"I'm going to go see him," she said, sitting in the council chambers near a line of photos of past Montana chiefs. "I'm not mad at him."

Pipestem doesn't have conscious memories of abuse at the school, where she lived from the age of three after her mother died. But a classmate told her years later that a nun had beaten her until she bled because she wasn't doing her work on the blackboard fast enough.

"It just shocked me," she said through tears.

Pipestem did not file a claim for compensation because she can't recall the incident. But she knows there was abuse at the school.

"I'm always grateful I'm still around," she said. "I think it kind of made me stronger." She reached a point where "I didn't believe in the Catholic religion. Why did they allow all these things to happen?"

Other survivors have found spiritual solace in Catholicism.

A man holds a bowl.
Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith gives communion during the rededication ceremony and Sunday mass at Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples earlier this week. (Jessie Wardarski/The Associated Press)

Last Sunday, worshippers crowded into Sacred Heart for the rededication of the sanctuary after a fire. The newly restored space features large wooden beams in the shape of a teepee over the altar and evocative images of Jesus and his followers portrayed with Indigenous features.

Drummers accompanied a procession into the church, followed by a multicultural mix of musical styles and a liturgy in English and Cree.

"This church has been a part of my healing journey," said Moberly, who has been attending for many years.

She said that as a young adult, still traumatized by her school experiences, she rejected the Catholic faith for a time, turned to drinking and made poor choices. But when she became a grandmother, she resolved to change her ways and set a strong example for others.

"It wasn't an easy task," she said. "There was many tears."

Elder Fernie Marty, 73, said Francis's visit will not only bring reconciliation but encourage what he calls "reconcili-action."

"We all play a part in making sure that those kinds of atrocities never happen again on Canadian soil," Marty said.

Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith said the Pope's visit sends a message not only with words but with action, since he's coming to Canada even as he has cancelled other trips due to health problems.

"This is showing ... how important it is for him to demonstrate personally his personal closeness to the Indigenous peoples," Smith said.

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.