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Phil Fontaine's lifelong mission to get a papal apology delayed, but not over

While a long-awaited trip to visit Pope Francis at the Vatican was delayed due to concerns about the omicron variant, Phil Fontaine says he's more determined than ever to make sure the apology he's been fighting to hear for at least 31 years now will be made.

Trip to Rome by residential school survivors including First Nations leader Phil Fontaine delayed

Phil Fontaine says that although this trip to the Vatican has been postponed, he's determined to continue seeking an apology from the Pope. (Rebecca Kelly for CBC)

While a long-awaited trip to visit Pope Francis at the Vatican was delayed due to concerns about the omicron variant, Phil Fontaine says he's more determined than ever to make sure the apology he's been fighting to hear for at least 31 years now will be made.

Fontaine is widely known as one one of the most prominent First Nations leaders in Canada as the former Assembly of First Nations national chief. 

While he has many other titles, it seems the one that drives him the most is that of residential school survivor.

This week, he and a delegation of other residential school survivors were supposed to leave for Rome to meet the Pope to ask, among other things, for an apology from the Catholic Church for its role in the harms caused during the residential school era to former students.

"I have a long history of the residential school experiences in my family. There were ten of us. Eight boys, two girls that attended residential schools, some of my brothers [attended] two schools as I did," Fontaine said from his home in Calgary.

"Our mother and father were both students at the Fort Alexander Indian Residential School. My grandmother on my father's side was a student at the St. Boniface Industrial School, where a lot of students perished."

Speaking out in 1990

He says he and his family, like thousands of other Indigenous people in Canada, have suffered greatly at the hands of the Catholic Church — something he first opened up about 31 years ago on CBC.

Fontaine says he's listened to an interview he did with CBC's Barbara Frum in 1990 many times, and says his desire to expose what he was saw, heard and felt while as a residential school student motivated him to do the interview.

"It was what I had experienced around me. What I had heard, what I had seen, and how the church to some extent had corrupted us as individuals and communities," he added.

Speaking out made Fontaine the first person to talk publicly about what happened in residential schools, and he says he felt backlash for it at the time.

"I understood then that this struck a nerve in our people, even though I was chastised for speaking about this in a public forum, especially at chiefs' meeting," Fontaine said. He said his fellow chiefs chastised him, asking him not to talk about the abuse he and others experienced.

WATCH | From the archives, Phil Fontaine's testimony of physical and sexual abuse:

Phil Fontaine's 1990 account of physical and sexual abuse at residential school

32 years ago
Duration 7:30
Fontaine's tell-all interview from 1990 of abuse at a church-run residential school. Aired on CBC's The Journal on Oct. 30, 1990. Warning: This video contains distressing details. About 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children were forced to attend the government-funded residential schools from the 19th century to 1996, when the last one closed. They lived in substandard conditions and endured sexual, physical, and emotional abuse. The system was "cultural genocide," said the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015. A 24-hour national Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available at 1-866-925-4419 to support former students and others affected by a residential school experience.

But he didn't stop speaking. And soon after, his actions became louder than his words as he and others worked toward securing the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement.

The agreement brought on the apology delivered by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2008.

And that event, which Fontaine was present for, signaled the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

But still missing from all of the work he's done so far for survivors, Fontaine says, is an apology from the Pope of the Catholic Church. 

Ready to hear apology

Fontaine believes an apology is necessary for many survivors like him and he's very optimistic that it will happen.

He's also hoping those who hear an apology will accept it.

"Because if we don't accept the apology, then obviously there is no forgiveness on our part and we will be left with is the anger, the bitterness that so many of us have carried for years and years and years," Fontaine said. 

"We have to unburden ourselves from those feelings."

Fontaine says he's ready to hear the apology and accept it. He still feels healthy but admits he feels a sense of urgency and wants to hear the apology before he passes on.

WATCH | Phil Fontaine talks about being chastised by other chiefs for speaking out:

Phil Fontaine's push for apology from Catholic Church was not always welcomed by other chiefs

10 months ago
Duration 0:57
Phil Fontaine, former AFN national chief and lead delegate, is getting ready for an upcoming visit with Pope Francis at the Vatican, in an effort to get an official apology from the Catholic Church to residential school survivors and families, something he's been working on for 31 years.

"It has to be the end, I can't carry this with me forever. It's crazy-making, as they say," Fontaine said.

"And I'm getting on now, you know I'm of an older age and I have to get rid of a lot of the part of my life that's burdened, that's where I'm going and I have an open mind, I can see the most important part of that journey is my heart."

There is no guarantee that the Pope will actually apologize to former residential school students, but Fontaine says his relationship with the church now, and where he's at in life, gives him hope that it will happen.

"I must admit I've always been treated well and I appreciate that," Fontaine said of Catholic Church officials, in spite of what he's experienced at the hands of the church. 

"As [Pope] Francis says, don't worry yourself about the sins of the flesh, the worst kind of sin is pride and hatred. I carried the hatred part in me for a long, long time," said Fontaine.

He said that hatred has caused many hardships in his life.

"It manifested itself in different ways, unforgiving ways. I must admit that it's been a huge struggle for me and where my struggle will take me, I've no idea at this point. But I know where I want to go now, is to Rome for a papal visit. To hear Francis say, 'I apologize,'" said Fontaine. 

And that, he says, will be closer to the end of his journey of forgiveness.

Phil Fontaine's lifelong mission to get a papal apology delayed, but not over

10 months ago
Duration 6:22
While a long-awaited trip to visit Pope Francis at the Vatican was delayed due to concerns about the omicron variant, Phil Fontaine says he's more determined than ever to make sure the apology he's been fighting to hear for at least 31 years now will be made.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sheila North was a storyteller, reporter and host for CBC working in Winnipeg, in Treaty 1 Territory. Sheila is Cree.

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