Muskowekwan First Nation calls for Pope to visit local residential school site during Canada trip

Thirty-five potential graves were discovered at the site of the former Muscowequan Indian Residential School.

Donald Bolen, Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Regina, supports call

The Muscowequan Indian Residential School on May 9, 2022. The site of the former residential school is located on the Muskowekwan First Nation. (Rob Kruk/CBC )

WARNING: This story contains distressing details

Muskowekwan First Nation is formally requesting that Pope Francis include a stop at the last standing residential school building in Saskatchewan during his upcoming visit to Canada.

Members of Muskowekwan — located more than 100 km northeast of Regina —  made the request at a news conference on Monday.

"We have a hope and a prayer that eventually we would have the Pope coming to visit in Muskowekwan," said Muskowekwan Chief Jamie Wolfe.

"To hear those words of forgiveness would be life changing to some that still believe in that way, in that culture. I wouldn't want to watch something like that on TV. I would want the person here in person to have him come and say sorry for what you had to endure in this school." 

Thirty-five potential unmarked graves have been discovered at the former site of Muscowequan Indian Residential School. 

The school was operated by the Roman Catholic Church until the federal government took over in 1969. Constructed in 1930 and 1931, the school recently became a national historic site after a campaign from members of the community who view it as an important site that bears witness to the history of residential schools

'It means something'

On Monday, the First Nation was joined by Donald Bolen, Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Regina, and Marie-Anne Daywalker-Pelletier, who was part of the First Nations delegation from Canada that met Pope Francis at the Vatican in March. 

Treaty Commissioner Mary Culbertson and representatives of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) were also present.

 Last month, the FSIN called for the Pope to visit Saskatchewan residential school gravesites during his trip scheduled for July. That request was echoed again on Monday. 

"We had told them, you come to our region, our traditional lands, where there's a large standing school here in Muskowekwan and where it means, where it means something for the people," FSIN Chief Bobby Cameron said.

Bobby Cameron, Chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, calls for Pope Francis to visit the former site of the Muscowequan Indian Residential School, during the papal trip set for July 2022. (Rob Kruk/CBC )

Cameron has previously said that the Pope owes each community and former attendee of a Catholic-operated school an apology in their own sovereign territory. 

On Monday, Cameron said the Pope should visit First Nations in Saskatchewan to witness the reality, impact and legacy of residential schools.

LISTEN| A Canadian archbishop's hopes for reconciliation ahead of a historic papal visit: 
Five years ago, Donald Bolen, the Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Regina, was part of an effort to bring Pope Francis to Saskatchewan, to apologize for its role in Canada's residential school system. He's also one of six members of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops traveling to the Vatican, along with an Indigenous delegation this week. Bolen speaks with Piya Chattopadhyay about his hopes for the delegation, why he thinks Canada may soon see a formal apology from Pope Francis, and how Canadian bishops are committing to a new era of reconciliation.

Bolen said he supports the efforts to bring Pope Francis to Muskowekwan.

"That would be a beautiful and powerful thing," he said, but admitted that he only has a small role and was not sure if it would happen.

Bolen commended the good work being done in the community and the efforts to heal and move forward from the traumatic legacy of residential schools. 

Donald Bolen, Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Regina, speaks at the site of the former Muscowequan Indian Residential School on May 9, 2022. (Rob Kruk/CBC )

The archbishop said that although the Roman Catholic Church has previously worked to restrict the spiritual traditions First Nations, he believed that they are now allies as First Nations attempt to revive and renew the spiritual traditions of their ancestors.

"We understand not only the legacy of racism, but also the way racism continues in our society today," Bolen said.

During her visit to Rome, Daywalker-Pelletier presented Pope Francis with baby moccasins in return of a promise for him to return them to the steps of a residential school in her region.

She said she plans to hold the Pope to account and questioned whether the planned papal visit was merely a reward for those "Indigenous people who still practise the faith, rather than a sign of reconciliation."

Daywalker-Pelletier called on the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) to use its influence to have the Pope visit the school. 

"The standing residential schools in Canada, much like the concentration camps of Dachau, Auschwitz-Birkenau and other holocaust sites in Europe, are our proof of Canada's history and a visit by the Holy Father is a true sign the commitment that the Catholic church will never participate in this type of action ever again," she said in a statement released before the news conference began.

Donald Bolen, Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Regina, speaks during a news conference at Muscowequan Indian Residential School on May 9, 2022. (Rob Kruk/CBC )

There were 22 residential schools in Saskatchewan, with tens of thousands of First Nation children forced to attend. At least half were run by the Catholic Church.

Pope Francis is expected to visit Quebec City, Edmonton and Iqaluit during a late July trip to Canada.

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered 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.

With files from Bryan Eneas, Pratyush Dayal and Laura Sciarpelletti