Mi'kmaw man says his drumming in Rome was meant to 'uplift' residential school survivors

The world watched as Indigenous delegates travelled to Rome to demand an apology from the Catholic Church this week and got a glimpse of Indigenous cultures through singing, dancing and drumming. One Mi'kmaw drummer who was there says his contribution was about providing strength to residential school survivors.

Michael R. Denny travelled from Eskasoni First Nation in Nova Scotia to Rome in hopes of empowering survivors

Michael R. Denny, a Mi'kmaw man from Eskasoni First Nation in eastern Cape Breton Island, N.S., travelled to Rome this past week to drum for some of the residential survivors who met with the Pope to share their stories and highlight some of the abuses that took place in the church-run schools. (Submitted by Michael R. Denny )

As Indigenous delegates from Canada descended on Rome this week to demand an apology from Pope Francis for abuses committed in church-run residential schools, a steady influx of Indigenous cultures made its way onto the world stage. 

Indigenous crafts and hand-made items such as moccasins and cradle boards were on display; delegates and dancers were adorned in colourful traditional regalia; and the sounds of hand drums could be heard echoing across Vatican City.

Michael R. Denny, a Mi'kmaw man from Eskasoni First Nation in eastern Cape Breton Island, N.S., was one of those drummers. He said he wanted to use his skill to honour the residential school survivors who came to Rome to meet with the Pope and share their stories.

"I was there to help uplift them and give them strength to keep going and let them know they're not there alone and we're here for them," said Denny, 34. 

Honouring survivors present and past

Denny says it wasn't about performing for the Pope or the Catholic Church but rather it was a way to honour the survivors who were present as well as his late father and other family members forced to attend residential schools.

Many Mi'kmaq and Wolastoqew children were forced to attend the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School in central Nova Scotia, which was open from 1930 to 1967. 

Under the church-run, federally funded residential school system, Indigenous children were removed from their home communities and stripped of their language, cultures and traditional knowledge in the interest of forcing them to conform to the colonial structures and customs. 

Children who attended residential schools often faced physical, emotional and sexual abuse at the hands of those who ran the schools.

For Denny, singing and drumming in Rome was a powerful statement against the impact of that abuse.

"I'm there showing that resilience, and I'm showing them we are still here," he said.

He said he wished more Mi'kmaq and Wolastoqew were represented in Rome but that he admired the strength of the survivors who were there.

The power of ceremonial songs and dances

For Sophia Sidarous, who is from Metepenagiag Mi'kmaq Nation in eastern New Brunswick, the survivors showed heroic strength. She watched the events from Halifax, where she lives.

"Just how brave these survivors are. To go and share their stories in front of your own people is one thing, but sharing it in front of your oppressor is another," she said. 

Sophia Sidarous, who is from Metepenagiag Mi'kmaq Nation in eastern New Brunswick, watched the Vatican events from Halifax but was not impressed with the Pope's apology. (Submitted by Sophia Sidarous )

She says it was also moving to watch as Indigenous dancers and drummers offered up their strength to the delegates and survivors. Sidarous herself practises a type of dance known as old-style jingle and says there is a lot of power that comes from ceremonial songs and dances. 

Her father and her aunts and uncles are residential school survivors, and she says she felt unmoved by the Pope's apology on April 1, in which he sad he felt "sorrow and shame" for the role that a number of Catholics had in abuses committed against Indigenous people.

"It was really hard to hear because it really doesn't change anything for me or my family," said Sidarous. 

WATCH | Pope apologizes for abuses committed by some members of the church:

'I am very sorry': Pope Francis apologizes for abuses at residential schools

8 months ago
Duration 13:42
Saying he was 'deeply grieved by the stories of the suffering' experienced in residential schools, Pope Francis apologized to Indigenous delegates at a public audience at the Vatican.

She said she is still very supportive of the survivors who needed to hear it and hopes it brought them closure but said for herself, she needs to see more action and more empowerment of Indigenous people.

Sidarous would like to see more healing lodges in communities to help survivors deal with the impact of residential schools; the repatriation of Indigenous artifacts that are currently in the Vatican Museums collection; and the opening up of records of church members involved in residential school abuses. 

She'd like to ensure that the world continues to listen to survivors and learns from their experiences.

"I really want those survivors to feel heard, and I hope they did," said Sidarous. 

WATCH | What Indigenous delegates said about Pope's apology:

Indigenous delegates react to Pope Francis's apology for 'deplorable' abuses at residential schools

8 months ago
Duration 3:35
In order: Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, Métis National Council President Cassidy Caron, Dene Nation Delegation Lead Chief Gerald Antoine and Phil Fontaine, the former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, share their reactions to Pope Francis's apology for the conduct of some members of the Catholic Church in Canada's residential school system.


Oscar Baker III is a Black and Mi’kmaw reporter from Elsipogtog First Nation. He is the Atlantic region reporter for CBC Indigenous. He is a proud father and you can follow his work @oggycane4lyfe