Survivors speak of separation, and hope, in Maskwacis during Papal apology

Gary Williams traveled from Gitxsan territory in northwestern B.C. to Maskwacis, Alta., while Marilyn Yellowbird Rowan, who lives in the community was on hand to offer support, smudge and prayers.

Survivors from Gitwangak and Maskwacis have different views on apology

Gary WIlliams called the trip to hear the Papal apology, an adventure. (Francine Compton/CBC)

Survivors came from near and far to be present for Pope Francis's apology to residential school survivors in Maskwacis, Alta., on Monday.

Gary Williams travelled from his traditional Gitxsan territory in northwestern B.C.

While sitting in the arbour in Maskwacis, the 72-year-old recalled the 23-hour train ride he and his younger brother took from their home in Gitwangak to St. Albert residential school near Edmonton when they were children.

"It was scary way back then, especially when we were 11 and nine," said Williams.

Like many of the elders and survivors attending, he had to board a bus at 5:30 a.m. to the site for the arrival of the Pope.

But he wasn't there for an apology from the Pope; he was asked to come as an elder and a survivor.

"Oh, goodness. I don't care for the apology myself. I don't," he said.

Williams also spent nearly 25 years on council governing his First Nation and is one of only a fraction of language speakers left in his community.

Marilyn Yellowbird Rowan welcomed survivors coming into the teepee asking for a sage smudge and prayers. She sees Monday's event as the beginning of a healing process. (Francine Compton/CBC)

Marilyn Yellowbird Rowan didn't have to go far to hear the apology. The survivor from Maskwacis was on hand to offer support, smudge and prayers in a teepee behind the arbour.

"I came here in very good spirits and hopefully that whatever I learn through the healing process, I can bring that home to my family members," said Rowan.

Her soft voice and comforting smile welcomes people into the teepee as she takes her time preparing a stick of sage for the smudge bowl.

"It's been quite constant here," she said.

"A lot of people have come in and out, asking for prayers, which is a good sign."

After a day of praying and smudging with survivors, she said she feels thankful people came from all over and hopes hearing the Pope's apology helps them heal.

"I think a lot of people will go home now and start to feel more content and more happier, hopefully," she said.

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.

Mental health counselling and crisis support is also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat at


Francine Compton covers national news for CBC Indigenous in Winnipeg. She has also worked as an executive producer in Ottawa. You can reach her at