'Substantial but disappointing': Local Indigenous communities reflect on apology by Pope Francis

When Sean Hoogterp of the Walpole Island First Nation, Bkejwanong Territory in southwestern Ontario heard Pope Francis apologizing to hundreds of residential school survivors and their families on Monday, the first person who came to his mind was his grandmother, also a residential school survivor. 

Pope asked for forgiveness in the ways church members co-operated on projects of cultural destruction

Pope Francis sits on a stage surrounded by First Nations chiefs in headdresses.
Pope Francis gives a speech as he meets with First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities in Maskwacis, Alta., on Monday. (Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

When Sean Hoogterp of the Walpole Island First Nation, Bkejwanong Territory in southwestern Ontario heard Pope Francis apologize to hundreds of residential school survivors and their families on Monday, the first person who crossed his mind was his late grandmother, Lorraine, who survived the Mount Elgin Indian Residential School.

"I think if she were here today watching the apology, she would've felt that acknowledgment. I'm not sure about the acceptance, but I think it would've mattered to her to see that," Hoogterp said. 

Hoogterp, now co-ordinator of Indigenous initiatives at Western University's Catholic Church affiliate, King's University College, believes the Pope's visit is his way of taking accountability for the pain and trauma the residential school system and assimilation policies have caused generations of Indigenous communities. 

Pope Francis arrived in Canada on Sunday for a week-long trip to advance reconciliation between Indigenous communities and the Roman Catholic Church in what he referred to as a  "pilgrimage of penance." His first public address was in Maskwacis, Alta., south of Edmonton. 

He asked for forgiveness for "the ways in which many members of the church co-operated in projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation promoted by the governments of that time, which culminated in the system of residential schools."

An honest approach

Sean Hoogterp is co-ordinator of Indigenous initiatives at King's College University in London, Ont. He believes the Pope's apology was sincere, but wanted him to take more responsibility for the Catholic Church's roles in residential schools. (Isha Bhargava/CBC)

"From what I can see, it looked like the Pope was honest in his approach," Hoogterp said.

However, he said he would have liked to have seen the Pope say the Catholic Church as an institution was responsible for running residential schools. 

Joel Abram, grand chief of the Association of Iroquois and Allied Indians, agrees.

"The apology was substantial in many ways to a lot of people, especially survivors, but in a larger context it was a little disappointing," Abram said. 

Instead, he wished the Pope had acknowledged the Doctrine of Discovery in the papal bulls dating back to the 1400s that allowed European explorers to claim the land of Indigenous people.

Abram believes if the doctrine is rescinded, it could bring a momentum of change in the legislation and policies used by the federal government, such as the Indian Act, and its impacts on the child welfare system. The church has a greater responsibility than just residential schools, Abram said.

"They grounded the work for those assimilation policies," he said. "It wasn't just a bunch of Catholic individuals who got together and said, 'Hey let's run this residential school,' you know — that's not what happened. It was the church itself that ran those schools."

According to Abram, the Pope was sincere in the words he used in his apology, and he appreciates the pontiff's efforts in travelling all the way from the Vatican to Canada despite having health and mobility issues. Abram is hopeful the Pope will mention the doctrine in his other addresses throughout the week.

'Sorry doesn't cut it'

What stood out to Hoogterp at Monday's event was the sense of pride he saw in the First Nations leaders who greeted the Pope in their traditional territory, dressed in regalia. He finds this reflects the diversity of Indigenous Nations and their unique challenges.

"This is a far cry from what their ancestors would've experienced at the hands of the Catholic Church, but now the holy father was there to pay respect to them," he said. 

Liz Akiwenzie from Chippewas of the Nawash First Nation, on the other hand, is a survivor of the St Mary's Catholic Day School that operated on her reserve. She doesn't feel this apology means much. 

"Sorry doesn't cut it — that's just words," she said. "People say sorry to make themselves feel better, put some substance behind that and maybe then we'll consider that sorry sincere."

Akiwenzie said she still lives with the trauma that residential schools inflicted upon her family and it's taken her decades to heal. Her brother died by suicide when he was in his 30s after being sexually abused at the residential school he was forced to attend as a child, she said. 

Liz Akiwenzie is a cultural knowledge keeper from the Chippewas of the Nawash First Nation, north of Owen Sound, Ont. (Submitted by Liz Akiwenzie)

"This happened to thousands in the seven generations of Native children. Not men, not women, but children, and I was a child who was verbally and physically abused by priests in my community. So an apology means nothing to me," she said.

Akiwenzie has no interest in keeping up with the remainder of the Pope's visit, saying her right to education and speaking her language was taken away from her, she said.

Hoogterp remains optimistic the Pope's visit will provide some healing to the communities and their subsequent generations who continue to be impacted by the trauma of residential schools. 

"The Pope took the first steps towards reconciliation, something that I believe took generations to arrive to and will take generations to resolve," he 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.

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


Isha Bhargava is a multiplatform reporter for CBC News. She's worked for Ontario newsrooms in Toronto and London. She loves telling current affairs and human interest stories. You can reach her at