Nova Scotia

Papal apology for residential school abuses draws strong reaction from Mi'kmaw leaders

After meeting with delegations of Inuit, Métis and First Nations, the Pope said he felt 'sorrow and shame for the role that a number of Catholics' played in residential school abuses.

Mi'kmaw hereditary Chief Stephen Augustine says he was brought to tears by 'powerful speech' by Pope Francis

Stephen Augustine, a hereditary chief, says he was in awe after hearing the apology from Pope Francis that acknowledged abuses at Catholic residential schools. (Matthew Moore/CBC)

Pope Francis's apology for abuses inflicted by some Catholics at residential schools has generated strong reactions from Mi'kmaw leaders in Nova Scotia.

"I really cried, I'll tell you that," said Stephen Augustine, a hereditary chief and vice-president of Indigenous Affairs at Cape Breton University. "I haven't cried in a long time. It had a big impact on me."

Last week, Augustine expressed doubt that Indigenous people would get an apology from Pope Francis. At the time, he figured the Vatican would hesitate to admit anything for legal reasons.

On Friday, Augustine said he was in awe when he heard the Pope talk about economic and ecological colonization and how Indigenous children had been severed from their roots to the land.

"It was a very powerful speech," Augustine said.

"I'm still kind of reeling from it. The hairs on the back of my neck are still standing up, because of all the things he said."

Pope expresses 'sorrow and shame'

After meeting with delegations of Inuit, Métis and First Nations, the Pope said he felt "sorrow and shame for the role that a number of Catholics, particularly those with educational responsibilities, have had in all these things that wounded you, and the abuses you suffered and the lack of respect shown for your identity, your culture and even your spiritual values."

Augustine said he listened carefully to the apology and doesn't think the Pope was holding back.

"I think he's saving those that didn't do anything to the Indigenous children," Augustine said. "So he doesn't want to lump all Catholics and all priests in that category.

"He's really lashed out at the guilty ones, or the sinners. He referred to them as evil ... [and] I don't think he was sparing the culprits that did awful things to the children."

In the words he used, the Pope appears to have really listened to the delegates who were in Rome to tell their stories, Augustine said.

An apology from the church was one of the 94 recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Pope has fulfilled that, he said

"I found a lot of hope in his message," Augustine said.

Membertou Heritage Park general manager Jeff Ward says the apology is a good first step, but it has to be followed by concrete actions, such as apologizing on Indigenous territory. (Matthew Moore/CBC)

Jeff Ward, general manager of the Membertou Heritage Park, said he was shocked, surprised and pleased to hear the apology.

It is a good first step, said Ward, but it has to be accompanied by concrete actions.

"Recognition is the start of the healing. That's that first spark," he said.

"[But] it's not over yet and there's a lot more that needs to be done for our people, because today, this apology, for some of our members and some of my family, this apology means nothing, because it's just an apology and it could be empty," he said.

The Pope needs to follow through on his promise to apologize in Canada on Indigenous territory and has to return some Indigenous artifacts held in the Vatican, Ward said.

Until now, Indigenous spirituality has not been recognized as being on an equal footing with the major religions, he said, but an apology from the Pope and recognition of Indigenous culture may now become widespread.

"Maybe this will change society as a whole and we will get recognized," Ward said. "We will get that unconditional acceptance."

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.



Tom Ayers


Tom Ayers has been a reporter and editor for 36 years. He has spent half of them covering Cape Breton and Nova Scotia stories. You can reach him at