Nova Scotia

Residential school survivors from Eskasoni attend Pope Francis's mass in Quebec

Residential school survivors travelled by bus from Eskasoni to attend Pope Francis’s mass near Quebec City on Thursday.

About 30 people travelled from Eskasoni to Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré to hear Pope's message

Pope Francis held mass at the National Shrine of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupre Thursday. Thousands of people gathered inside the shrine to hear his message on his 'pilgrimage of penance.' (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Around 30 people from Eskasoni First Nation, N.S., were in the audience as Pope Francis held mass at the National Shrine of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré outside of Quebec City on Thursday. 

The group, which included residential school survivors and their support people, travelled by bus from Eskasoni to attend mass and hear the Pope's message to survivors and Indigenous communities. 

Back in Eskasoni, dozens of people gathered at the Sarah Denny Cultural Centre to watch the live stream of the Pope's message and to support elders and survivors in the community.

Benjamin Lafford was sent to residential school in Shubenacadie, N.S., at the age of six. He was there for seven years. 

Benjamin Lafford was sent to Shubenacadie residential school at the age of six. (George Mortimer)

"It was very hard for me as a child," Lafford said. "I didn't understand anything about what's going on. They took us away. I suffered physically, mentally, sexually, emotionally, spiritually."

Lafford was disappointed in the Pope's mass.

"He never responded to or said a prayer for the children that never went home," he said.

He hoped the Pope would apologize further to survivors and their families.

"When the Pope apologized in Edmonton, it was a different tone. In Quebec he was supposed to apologize and tell the survivors that we are very, very sorry for what you went through in the residential school," Lafford said. 

Lafford did not find any comfort in the mass, though he has been healing for decades through powwows, sweat lodges, talking circles, dancing and prayer. 

A light in dark times

Man in Every Child Matters orange t-shirt looks art the camera.
Chief Leroy Denny says he personally felt a sense of healing from the Pope's message Thursday, but survivors are on their own healing journeys. (George Mortimer)

Chief Leroy Denny said the Pope's visit and reaffirmation of reconciliation was a historical, dark time, though there's a light moving toward reconciliation. 

Denny felt a sense of healing and apology from the Pope's mass, but he said each survivor's healing journey is unique.

"It's for the survivors. We're just here for them. They have their own journey of forgiveness," Denny said.

Denny noted that some survivors have accepted the apology, and others have not. 

"It's a journey. All we can do is support them and we wish the best for them," he said.

Eskasoni Health staff contacted all 46 survivors in the community to see who was interested in attending the event in person. Those who boarded the bus to Quebec were accompanied by support staff. 

They were among 2,000 people who sat inside the basilica in seats reserved for Indigenous participants, delegations from Eastern Canadian dioceses and some government officials. Residential school survivors sat in the front row. 

Several thousands more watched a live broadcast on large screens on the shrine's grounds.

Pope's comments

Protestors hold a 'Rescind the doctrine' banner outside Saint-Anne-de-Beaupre while Pope Francis held mass. (Olivia Laperrière-Roy/CBC/Radio-Canada)

During mass on Thursday, Pope Francis referred to a "sense of failure" as it relates to past actions against Indigenous people in Canada. 

"In confronting the scandal of evil and the body of Christ wounded in the flesh of our Indigenous brothers and sisters, we too have experienced deep dismay; we too feel the burden of failure," he said.

Some activists and survivors say his comments did not go far enough, as protestors urged the Pope to rescind the Doctrine of Discovery, an edict that justified the colonization, conversion, and enslavement of non-Christians and the seizure of the lands. 

With files from George Mortimer