Saskatchewan·Point of View

Residential school survivor pens open letter to Pope after pontiff's decision not to apologize

Residential school survivor Bernice Daigneault wrote an open letter to Pope Francis on March 30 after he decided last month not to apologize for the Catholic Church's role in the schools.

Pope's decision was announced last month in an open letter 'to the Indigenous peoples of Canada'

Bernice Daigneault is angry that Pope Francis is not apologizing for the Catholic church's role in residential schools. The residential school survivor says she suffered sexual and physical abuse and it is time the church took responsibility. (Rosalie Woloski/CBC)

Bernice Daigneault is an educator, activist and residential school survivor from Meadow Lake, Sask.

She wrote an open letter to Pope Francis on March 30 in response to the Catholic leader's decision not to apologize for the church's role in residential schools.

Below is that letter in full. 

Dear Mr. Jorge Mario Bergoglio (aka Pope Francis):

I am writing to express my outrage at your refusal to issue an apology for the Catholic church's prominent role in the atrocious legacy of violence and abuse suffered by Indigenous peoples attending residential schools in Canada. 

Pope Francis says he will not be apologizing for the church's role in Canada's residential schools. (Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters)

There are so many reasons why this infuriates me. 

First of all, I am a residential school survivor of the Île-à-la-Crosse residential school (1962-64). While there, I endured not only cultural, personal and physical abuse at the hands of the nuns but also sexual violence of the worst sort by a priest who would quote scripture as he was performing his mortifying acts.

None of the students of the IÎle-à-la-Crosse residential school have received any compensation from the Government of Canada because they claim the school was run by the Catholic church without support from the government. Although this is not entirely true, there were other schools like this which the Catholic church set up and ran with very little if any oversight from the government of Canada.

My point is that this puts the onus of responsibility directly upon the church to take responsibility for these abuses and be held accountable for them. 

Île-à-la-Crosse, Sask., residential school closed in the mid 1970s. It is surrounded by the village's elementary school and high school. (Submitted by Northern Village of Ile-a-la-Crosse)

Secondly, it is a shameful disgrace that the Catholic church has been so reluctant to participate in and contribute towards compensation efforts by the Canadian government and other churches to residential school survivors who are recognized. 

It is even difficult if not impossible to take the Catholic church to court because, as a church, you have avoided status as a legal entity that can be held accountable in court just like any other corporate body in Canada. So not only is the Catholic church avoiding taking responsibility for the genocidal nature of residential schools but now you as the patriarchal head of the Catholic church are refusing to apologize.

This is truly outrageous. 

Thirdly, you and other church officials keep on saying that dealing with the legacy of abuse in residential schools requires an individual or local/regional response. 

Really! I have seen lots of individual residential school survivors come forward over the last 25 years to talk about their victimization but not once have I seen a priest or a nun come forward to take responsibility for the "sins" they have committed as the perpetrators of this abuse. 

You can't have reconciliation if the individuals involved in violating Indigenous people will not acknowledge they did wrong and are not held accountable for it.

Just like your refusal to apologize, this is avoidance and denial.

The absence of any such confession on the part of individuals within the Catholic church shows how deceitful it is to promote, as the Catholic bishops letter states, individual encounters and pastoral initiatives. How are Indigenous peoples supposed to trust or engage in pastoral initiatives when it was the very "pastors" who abused them!

A study published in the Canadian Review of Sociology shows that Indigenous parents are more fearful of Canada's current education system. (Reuters/Library and Archives Canada)

Fourthly, a factor everyone keeps avoiding, is that when a social ill is perpetuated because of systemic or institutional realities, it is incumbent upon the head of that institution to not only apologize but to promote the radical transformation of that institution.

For example, racism in Canada and elsewhere will not be eliminated only by encouraging a change of heart and attitudes in individuals; it must be accompanied by a fundamental re-formation (or conversion, if you wish) of corporations and institutions in Canadian society. 

Based on your statements about poverty, environment and capitalism, I believe you know this to be necessary.  But you need to apply this to your church as well. The legacy of abuse in residential schools in Canada cannot be explained by a "few bad apples" in your church. This atrocity is symptomatic of systemic factors such as church doctrine, liturgical issues and a patriarchal and hierarchical structure — the patrimony of the Roman Catholic church. 

A true and meaningful apology has to be accompanied by institutional transformation. 

Fifthly, I believe it is the height of hypocrisy to advocate reconciliation, healing and solidarity with Indigenous peoples and yet refuse to apologize for the atrocities committed by the Catholic church. 

Without an apology, words such as reconciliation, healing and solidarity become mere masquerades to hide the real agenda of assimilation, new forms of colonialism and accommodation of indigenous peoples within the same basic institutional framework of the Catholic church. This is not only hypocritical, it is deceitful. Reconciliation and healing requires an acknowledgement of responsibility and a radical and fundamental change on the part of the individual or corporate entity that caused the conflict, injury or harm inflicted. 

I believe you Christians call it "repentance". Without an apology, I am left wondering, like the Leonard Cohen song lyrics say, what repentance means. It makes your whole "Christian" message an empty shell. 

The Battleford Industrial School in the Northwest Territories took in at least 100 students each year after the Red River Resistance in the late 1860s until the school closed in 1914. The building burned down in 2003. (Archives of Canada)

Sixthly, the refusal to apologize clearly indicates the ongoing obstinacy of the Catholic church in truly understanding Indigenous spirituality. 

Our traditional spirituality comes from the land, the water, all of creation.  Having lived so close to creation for thousands of years, it is evident to us that Creator exists and that Creator has invisible attributes such as great power and a divine nature. Even your scriptures recognize this (check out Romans 1:19-20). 

My question is why have all of the Christian churches who set up missions in our settlements never recognized this?  You are so consumed with converting us into your intractable doctrines through whatever means possible that you are blinded to seeing true spirituality in traditions that are different than your own. This raises the question of authenticity of your own spirituality.

Finally, I began this letter by using your real name, Jorge Mario Bergoglio.  I did this not out of disrespect but to speak to the real human being that you are and to speak on equal footing which, according to my tradition, we are. 

One of the practices of residential schools and the Catholic church was to "christen" newly born Indigenous children with so-called "Christian" names. 

My first given name was Iskwewsis and later, when my nature became evident, I was named Asiskikootewanapiskosis, or Aski for short. Giving us different names, such as Bernice or Mary or whatever, as a so-called sacrament of the church is part of the process of colonialism and church procedure. 

If we are ever going to communicate and understand each other, we must start from who we really are, human to human, not from institutionally appointed designations. 


Asiskikootewanapiskosis (aka Bernice Daigneault)

-with files from CBC Radio's Saskatoon Morning