Pope's residential school apology prompts mixed emotions from Manitoba survivors

For residential school and day school survivors in Manitoba, the heartfelt apology delivered by Pope Francis for members of the Catholic Church who co-operated with Canada’s 'devastating' policy of Indigenous residential schools brought mixed emotions.

Pope Francis didn't mention sexual abuse, day school survivors in long-awaited apology in Canada

Phil Fontaine, the former chief of the Assembly of First Nations and a residential school survivor says, for him, accepting the Pope's apology is an important step in moving forward. But not all survivors feel that way. (Gregorio Borgia/The Associated Press)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

For Phil Fontaine, watching the heartfelt apology delivered by Pope Francis at the site of one of Canada's largest residential schools on Monday illuminated a path forward for survivors and others affected by the legacy of the institutions. 

"I'm as optimistic as I was earlier in the day…The Pope expressed not just an apology. He didn't just say, 'I am sorry.' I think he laid out the work ahead of us," said Fontaine, the former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, who is from Sagkeeng First Nation in Manitoba, on CBC's The National Monday night.

The apology came on the first day of what the Pope called his "penitential pilgrimage," when he apologized for members of the Catholic Church who co-operated with 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.

"I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples," Francis told thousands of Indigenous people, including many survivors, who converged on Maskwacis, Alta., about 100 kilometres south of Edmonton.

While the Pope apologized for the actions of individual Catholics and asked for forgiveness, he did not explicitly apologize for the role of the church as an institution. 

WATCH | Phil Fontaine on what Pope's apology means to him:

Pope’s apology advances path forward for healing: former AFN chief Phil Fontaine

8 months ago
Duration 5:43
Phil Fontaine, a residential school survivor and former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, speaks with Adrienne Arsenault about what Pope Francis’s apology to Indigenous people means to him, and why he thinks it charts a path forward for healing.

But Fontaine, a survivor of the Fort Alexander Indian Residential School in Manitoba who led the negotiations that resulted in the 2006 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, said accepting the apology on behalf of the man who speaks on behalf of the Catholic church is an important step in moving forward.

"If we're true to our word in terms of healing and reconciliation, we're going to have to be able to forgive. He's come here before us a humble person begging for forgiveness, and of course you have to take that seriously. 

"Because we also want to move on. We want to find peace and solace in our lives. And if we can't bring ourselves to forgive, then this matter, this burden that we've had to shoulder for years and years, that'll carry on endlessly."

Words 'glossed over' details: survivor

Not all survivors were as satisfied with the Pope's apology. Vivian Ketchum, a survivor of the Cecilia Jeffery Indian Residential School in Kenora who now lives in Winnipeg, said it seemed to her like the pontiff's words "glossed over" the full truth of the effect the institutions have to this day.

"I think the sincerity might have been there, but I don't think he fully comprehends the whole situation and what was done to us: second generation, third generation. The loss of language, culture," said Ketchum, who was physically and sexually abused as a child at residential school in the 1970s.

Residential school survivor Vivian Ketchum says the Pope's apology didn't show a full understanding of the lingering effects of residential schools. (CBC)

She said she also noticed the Pope didn't mention any of the sexual abuse children suffered at the institutions, or the impact that day schools had on children forced to attend them.

"He missed out a lot," Ketchum said. "I didn't see it as a full apology."

She also took issue with the traditional Indigenous headdress that Chief Wilton Littlechild, a former commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, gave the Pope following the pontiff's long-awaited apology.

"That headdress was a little bit too much," she said.

Two men (a Chief and the Pope) facing each other, each wearing a traditional headdress.
Chief Wilton Littlechild, a former commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, gave the Pope a traditional headdress following the pontiff's apology. (Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters)

Apology will take time to sink in

Lynda Neckoway, who's from Fox Lake Cree Nation, said it was an emotional day listening to the apology from Winnipeg.

"It's affected so many … in ways that were so violent in the past and then they're suffering the consequences of it. I still feel that today, because I was married to somebody that was in residential school and it affected me because of the way I was treated, the children were treated, grandchildren were treated," she said.

Fox Lake Cree Nation member and day school survivor Lynda Neckoway says it was an emotional day listening to the Pope's apology from Winnipeg. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

"There was a lot of anger, resentments and alcoholism. Some violence…. And some people are still suffering from that today. A lot of the grandchildren, because of the way the survivors still carry the past with them and on to others."

The day school survivor, who was forced to attend one of the institutions in The Pas for three years, said she thinks it will take time for some to come to terms with the Pope's words.

"It's somebody saying, 'I'm sorry for what I've done,' and wanting forgiveness. And you know, that takes a little while to sink in, when somebody's violated you for many years and then [is] asking for forgiveness," Neckoway said.

Moving forward

Cindy Woodhouse, regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations in Manitoba, said it was also an emotional day for her, standing with residential school survivors in Alberta on Monday.

Woodhouse, a day school survivor who gifted the Pope an eagle feather when she met him, said she recognizes there are mixed reactions from people hearing the Pope's apology. 

Assembly of First Nations Manitoba regional Chief Cindy Woodhouse said she thinks the Pope's apology was a step in the right direction, though work remains to be done. (Cindy Woodhouse-Nepinak/Facebook)

"I know there's so many opinions out there. I know that many people are hurting," she said.

"People are at different stages in their walk with forgiveness and reconciling … Canada's dark past. Everybody's [in] different places when it comes to that. Some are farther ahead and some are just starting to realize what was done to them was wrong."

Woodhouse said she thinks the apology was a step in the right direction — though there's still work to do to address the harms of residential schools, particularly when it comes to child welfare in Canada.

"If there's one way that we are going to fix something, it's fixing child welfare. It's putting families back together," she said.

"I just hope that … our country comes together a lot stronger with First Nations people and with Catholics. I really look forward to all of us working together and talking to each other."

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

With files from Joanne Roberts and Chantallya Louis