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'A dramatic shift': Residential school survivor, Indigenous leader respond to Pope's use of word genocide

A residential school survivor is hopeful Pope Francis’s unqualified use of the word genocide to describe what happened to Indigenous Peoples forced to attend the schools marks a turning point for healing and progress.

'It's going to bear a lot of weight on governments, on agencies, on the churches,' says survivor

Jennifer Wood, who is a residential school survivor, says Pope Francis using the word genocide to describe what happened at the schools should carry a lot of weight with governments and agencies. (Justin Fraser/CBC)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details

It's about time. 

That was the response from a residential school survivor in Winnipeg on Pope Francis's unqualified use of the word genocide to describe what happened to Indigenous Peoples forced to attend the schools in Canada.

"It's about time that they use these kind of words to describe what happened to our people. It's about time that we're saying words that have meaning and truth," said Jennifer Wood, who works with the Winnipeg-based National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. 

"And that for it to come from the highest of the Vatican, saying it in our homeland, it's going to bear a lot of weight on governments, on agencies, on the churches," said Wood, who hails from Neyaashiinigmiig First Nation in Ontario. She was forced to attend a residential school in Portage la Prairie, Man.

The Pope used the word on the papal flight from Iqaluit to Rome late Friday, after spending six days in Canada on a "penitential pilgrimage" of reconciliation in which he apologized for the Catholic Church's role in running many of the schools.

WATCH | Pope says Canada's residential school system amounted to genocide:

Pope says Canada's residential school system amounted to genocide

4 months ago
Duration 3:16
Pope Francis described Canada's residential school system and its forced assimilation of Indigenous children as genocide. Brock Pitawanakwat, the co-ordinator of the Indigenous Studies program at York University, called the Pope's comments 'late,' but said they were an 'important development.'

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation in Winnipeg, which holds the records gathered by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, has so far documented 4,118 children who died at residential schools.

In his multiple speeches over the week, Pope Francis described the residential school system as a policy of assimilation and enfranchisement, and that it harmed families by undermining their language, culture and worldview.

"Yes, it's a technical word, genocide. I didn't use it because it didn't come to mind. But yes, I described it. Yes, it's a genocide," the pontiff told reporters on the outbound flight.

Wood and colleagues from the NCTR attended the Pope's first appearance and apology in Maskwacis, Alta., wearing T–shirts with the names of the dead children on them. She said she was glad to be able to represent their memory at the event. 

She remembers those children when thinking about the Pope's use of the term genocide.

"It's a deliberate destruction on our family, our identity and our culture. It's forced assimilation," Wood said. "You're taking your way of life away from an entire people in our homeland, Canada. So I'm very happy that he's coming out and saying words that are the truth."

Wood holds up a T-shirt with the names of some of the children who died in residential schools in Canada. She and her colleagues from the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation wore them to the Pope's first outing in Alberta on his six-day Canadian 'penitential pilgrimage' last week. (Justin Fraser/CBC)

'I was looking for words that were significant, meaningful': former AFN chief

The Pope's comments caught a longtime Indigenous leader off-guard.

"It clearly represents a dramatic shift, from my perspective. It was completely unexpected," said Phil Fontaine, former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations and a residential school survivor. 

Fontaine said he hopes the Pope's use of the word genocide doesn't stimulate an endless debate between the differences in meaning of the words "genocide" and "cultural genocide" when it comes to describing what residential school survivors experienced.

"I myself, personally, I wasn't looking for perfection. But I was looking for words that were significant, meaningful, honest," said Fontaine in an interview Saturday.

WATCH | Phil Fontaine speaks with Neil Herland on CBC News Network:

Former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations responds to Pope's use of word genocide

4 months ago
Duration 10:58
Phil Fontaine says Francis using the word elevates the issue and hopes the it spurs further action.

"What I heard has convinced me that we have to move on and begin other important work and not get dragged down by an endless debate, for example, between cultural genocide and genocide." 

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which released its final report in 2015, concluded that the school system amounted to cultural genocide.

Pope Francis's use of the word should not distract from confronting the unresolved issues between Indigenous Peoples and the Catholic Church, Fontaine said. Those issues include the return of lands where residential schools existed, and access to artifacts and records which remain in the control of the church. 

WATCH | How the Pope's visit to Canada unfolded in 11 minutes:

How the Pope’s visit to Canada unfolded in 11 minutes

4 months ago
Duration 11:52
Pope Francis recently completed a six-day 'pilgrimage of penance' in Alberta, Quebec and Nunavut. First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities reflected on his apology and visit with hope, disappointment and calls for action.

Brock Pitawanakwat, an associate professor of Indigenous studies at York University, said the development was important, if not a little late in coming. 

"The Catholic Church was noted for being always the, I guess, the straggler in terms of the apologies to residential school survivors. All the other churches move faster in terms of providing documents, acknowledging past harms. And so for the Pope to … acknowledge that genocide is an appropriate term, I think that is an important development," Pitawanakwat said.

The Pope's experiences in Canada and time spent with survivors seem to have left an imprint on him, said Darren Dias, a theology professor at St. Michael's College in Toronto. The use of the word genocide is an indication of that, Dias said. 

"This is an 85-year-old Argentinian with a lot on his plate — he doesn't know the full story. He hasn't read all the scholarly literature. But he is learning about it," said Dias.

WATCH | CBC's Sam Samson reports on the response to Pope's use of word genocide:

Residential school survivor, Indigenous leader respond to Pope's use of word genocide

4 months ago
Duration 2:21
The Pope used the word on the papal flight from Iqaluit to Rome late Friday, after spending six days in Canada.

"I think coming to Canada was a real learning experience," he added. "So I think if he didn't think to use it beforehand, he certainly knows what it was now, and has used the word clearly."

Wood, who works with residential school survivors across Canada to help them deal with trauma, says she's hopeful the Pope's comments help mark a turning point on their paths to healing.

"For him to use that word, I believe that the survivors are going to feel … a level of trust," she said. "They're going to trust the visit, that he has remorse, that he had profound sorrow. So to me, that's going to say he got it, he saw it — he saw genocide."


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 www.hopeforwellness.ca.

With files from the CBC's Sam Samson and Ka’nhehsí:io Deer

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