Sympathy from Pope a good start, but more action needed, chiefs say

The head of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs is applauding Wednesday's sympathy from Pope Benedict XVI, but said more needs to be done to atone for the damage caused by church-run residential schools.

The head of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs is applauding Wednesday's sympathetic statement from Pope Benedict XVI, but he said more needs to be done to atone for the damage caused by church-run residential schools.

The Pope expressed "sorrow" to a delegation from Canada's Assembly of First Nations on Wednesday over the abuse and "deplorable" treatment that aboriginal students suffered at residential schools run by the Roman Catholic Church.

In a statement, the Vatican said the Pope "offered his sympathy and prayerful solidarity" to those whose anguish was caused by some church members. The comments came during a private audience with the delegation, which included Assembly of First Nations Leader Phil Fontaine, aboriginal elders and residential school survivors.

Fontaine, who himself was abused at a residential school in Manitoba run by the Catholic Church, said the Pope's words are of great "personal comfort" to him. He said the absence of the actual word "apology" in the Pope's message doesn't diminish its significance.

Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Ron Evans said the Pope's sympathy is welcome, but just a start.

"We need to go beyond that," he said. "We have to replace what residential schools and the intent behind it [did], and the damage that it caused. We are feeling the impacts of that, so that needs to be restored. It's good to say you're sorry, but you should be able to restore what you have actually taken away.

"It's up to each survivor to decide in their own hearts and minds whether [the Pope's comments are] good enough for them. It's time to move on to the next steps of healing and reconciliation."

Should have spoken in Canada: school survivor

Don Courchene, who is from the same Sagkeeng First Nation as Fontaine and attended the same Fort Alexander Indian Residential School, said the meeting with the Pope may have healed hurts for Fontaine, but it doesn't do much for him.

"For him it's great, I would guess, but for me, reading it and not being able to see his actual words, it seems not genuine or real. You'd like to see what's in their eyes and hear in their voice their statement of sorrow. So it's kind of hollow in a sense."

Courchene, whose siblings, parents and grandparents also attended the school at some point, said the apology would have meant more if the Pope had actually come to Canada and given it in a public address, rather than a private meeting at the Vatican.

About 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children were taken from their families to attend the schools from as early as the 19th century to 1996. Most were run by missionaries from the Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian and United churches.

Many of the students were physically and sexually abused. The Catholic Church administered three-quarters of residential schools across Canada, but has yet to apologize for the rampant abuse suffered by many of the 90,000 former students still alive.

Other Christian denominations implicated in abuse at residential schools have already apologized — the Anglican Church in 1993, the Presbyterian Church in 1994 and the United Church in 1998.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper also offered an apology on behalf of the government of Canada in the House of Commons last year.