Papal visit to Alberta just one stop on journey to reconciliation, says Manitoba residential school survivor

Residential school survivors travelling from Manitoba to Alberta to see the Pope said they hope the historic visit will inspire more Canadians to learn about the trauma they faced and work towards reconciliation.

Not clear what Pope Francis will say, Winnipeg archbishop says

Residential school survivor Cynthia Bunn organized a delegation from seven First Nations in Manitoba to join on a bus trip with the Archdiocese of St. Boniface to see the pope in Alberta, where he's expected to apologize for the church's role in abuse at residential schools. (Kevin Nepitabo/CBC)

Residential school survivors travelling from Manitoba to Alberta to see the Pope said they hope the historic visit will inspire more Canadians to learn about the trauma they faced and work towards reconciliation.

The Archdiocese of Saint-Boniface invited members of seven First Nations to join clergy and staff on a charter bus to Edmonton. The delegation will also attend events in Maskwacis, Alta., home of the former Ermineskin Residential School, and a prayer service at the pilgrimage site of Lac Ste-Anne, Alta.

Cynthia Bunn coordinated the trip with people from Poplar River, Berens River, Bloodvein, Hollow Water, Seymourville and Manigotagan first nations, as well as her own community of Sagkeeng First Nation.

A residential school survivor herself, Bunn admits she initially hesitated to join what might be a painful journey. 

"Archbishop LeGatt approached me to coordinate with the seven communities, I said, 'OK I'll do it, but I don't want to go,'" she recalled with a chuckle. 

"And then I thought about it and said, 'OK, I'll go, very reluctantly.'"

Residential school survivors and relatives from Poplar First Nation were among the delegates on a church-funded bus trip to see the Pope at three locations in Alberta. (Emily Brass/CBC)

At 68, Bunn said she's still coming to terms with the trauma she suffered in residential school. An important part of that process has been reconnecting with her Ojibway language. 

Bunn remembered explaining to her parents years ago what happened at school to make her stop speaking it.

"I was hit for it," she said, tears welling in her eyes. "A nun told me it was the devil's language. So I didn't speak it for years."

Bunn continued to feel ashamed to speak Ojibway for decades, only relearning it in her 50s, with the help of relatives.

"I had to recondition my thinking, to not believe what they told me," she said. "It's a beautiful language and it has more meaning to me now."

A practising Catholic, Bunn said she cried when Pope Francis apologized this spring for the actions of some members of the church. But she said he needs to take that further, and apologize on behalf of the entire institution, to help move Canada closer to reconciliation.

"I look at our people and see the pain. Pain in each of them," said Bunn, her voice cracking as she began to sob. 

"I'm hoping that this apology will touch their hearts. God says not to harden your heart, to leave it open. Maybe it's a hurting heart. Maybe it's a bleeding heart. But it's still a heart and I'm leaving it open."

Archbishop Albert LeGatt said the trip will be a chance for church members to share in an experience "with both its light and its shadows," but said it's not clear exactly what Pope Francis will say.

"He receives advice and briefings," said LeGatt. "But it is his own heart and his own words that will come out."

Delegates waited for the bus in the courtyard at St. Boniface Cathedral, where the ministry once made decisions on how Indigenous children would be treated in residential schools. (Thomas Asselin/CBC)

The group waited for the bus in the courtyard of the centuries-old Saint-Boniface ministry, where many decisions were made on how Indigenous children would be treated at residential schools.

LeGatt said the whole church is to blame for the physical and sexual abuse they endured.

"That was robbing the cultural and spiritual depth of the people," said the archbishop. "And that lingers certainly in memory."

LeGatt said the Archdiocese of Saint-Boniface is funding the bus trip, with the help of private donations and the Catholic Health Network of Manitoba. He hopes each branch of the church makes amends, "diocese by diocese, bishop by bishop." 

He said his archdiocese was in the midst of planning a formal apology to Sagkeeng First Nation when the pandemic stalled the event. 

Archbishop Albert LeGatt hopes the Catholic Church makes amends to residential school survivors “diocese by diocese, bishop by bishop.” (Kevin Nepitabo/CBC)

"That would be my desire, in each of the communities," said LeGatt, "Not just once, but to make it a local apology, person to person. Because words are cheap."

He said the church is raising money to follow through on those gestures with support for Indigenous-led projects promoting healing, language and culture.

"Individuals and groups don't reconcile," he said. "People reconcile."

Bunn hopes these messages reach every community, including the town of Powerview-Pine Falls, just several kilometres from her hometown of Sagkeeng.

"Our neighbours don't know us, don't know our history, don't know anything about us," she said. "That's very hurtful." 

"One thing that I would like to tell society is accept us for who we are," she said. "Don't try to change us. Don't make us into something we're not."

"If we got all together, we could change things," said Bunn. "And I'm hoping for that."

Support is available for anyone affected by the lingering effects of residential schools and those who are triggered by the latest reports. The Indian Residential School Survivors Society can be contacted toll-free at 1-800-721-0066.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. Access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.


Emily Brass is a journalist and anchor at CBC Manitoba, and host of the podcast Type Taboo: Diary of a New Diabetic. She's also worked for CBC in Montreal, Toronto, St. John's, Victoria and London, UK.