The Current

Vatican must take action on residential school abuses if Pope visits Canada, says survivor

The Vatican says Pope Francis is willing to visit Canada and meet with Indigenous leaders. It's not clear if he will offer an apology for the church's role in residential schools, but one survivor says concrete action is needed.

Unreserved apology, releasing school records among things survivors want

The Vatican says Pope Francis is willing to visit Canada and meet with Indigenous leaders, though it's not clear if he will offer an apology for the Catholic Church's role in the residential school system. (Vatican Media/Reuters)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

With news that Pope Francis may visit Canada to meet with Indigenous leaders, one survivor says the pontiff has a "moral obligation" to atone for the Catholic Church's role in Canada's residential school system.

"This is not something you can say 'I'm sorry' and just move on [from]. You have to take ownership," Evelyn Korkmaz, a survivor of Anne's Indian Residential School in northern Ontario, told The Current's Matt Galloway.

WATCH | Pope accepts invitation to Canada to meet with Indigenous groups, Vatican says

Pope accepts invitation to Canada to meet with Indigenous groups, Vatican says

7 months ago
Duration 2:01
WARNING: This story contains distressing details. The Vatican says Pope Francis has accepted an invitation to come to Canada and meet with Indigenous groups who have long wanted an apology for the church’s role in residential schools. But it’s still not known when the Pope will visit or whether he’ll apologize.

On Wednesday, the Vatican said the Pope has expressed a "willingness" to come to Canada to meet with Indigenous leaders. 

The statement did not specify a timeline for the visit, nor did it indicate that the Pope would offer an apology. However, it said the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops had extended the invitation "also in the context of the long-standing pastoral process of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples." 

The news comes months after the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced that 200 burial sites were identified at a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C. There were further confirmations at several other schools in the months that followed, pushing the number of unmakred graves into the thousands.

"How can you close your eyes to [200] unmarked graves on a school ground? What other school ground in the whole world has a graveyard rather than a playground?" Korkmaz said.

Korkmaz previously asked the Pope to visit Canada in 2019, when she attended a Vatican summit of sexual abuse. She said she didn't get a response at the time, but recent events have changed things. 

"The pressure is on him, not just from the Indigenous community, but from across Canada," she said. "People have shown their desire to stand with us…. I think his back is to the wall, to be honest with you."

WATCH | Evelyn Korkmaz explains why she wants the Pope to apologize

Healing from the trauma

Korkmaz was forced to attend St. Anne's between 1969 and 1972. The school, located in Fort Albany, Ont., was run by the Oblates and Grey Nuns Catholic orders.

Abuses at the institution included whippings, getting shocked by an electric chair, and sexual assault. An Ontario Provincial Police investigation in the 1990s led to five convictions.

Korkmaz said the horrors inflicted on Indigenous children affect not only the survivors and their families and friends — but also the loved ones of those who died in the schools.

"There needs to be a lot of healing," she said. "Whether you actually get closure before you leave this earth is another story because it takes a lifetime to heal from trauma." 

Lynne Groulx says the impact of residential schools is still apparent in people's lives today. (NWAC)

Lynne Groulx, CEO of the Native Women's Association of Canada, said she regularly sees the effects of this trauma on the people who reach out to her organization.

"People are still losing their lives today ... either through suicide or addictions or any kind of other diseases that develop from chronic trauma," she said.

No empty apologies

Groulx stressed that an apology alone will not be enough. Rather, she said an apology should be the first step in a process of reconciliation and action.

"If the Pope presents himself here with empty words that do not have an unfettered and an unreserved apology, I don't think that's going to go over well; not just with the survivors and intergenerational survivors … [but] with Canadians," she said.

In 2015, Pope Francis apologized to Bolivian Indigenous groups and activists for the Catholic Church's crimes against Indigenous peoples during the colonial-era conquest of the Americas. 

"There was sin, and it was plentiful. But we never apologized, so I now ask for forgiveness," he said then. 

If the Pope presents himself here with empty words that do not have an unfettered and an unreserved apology, I don't think that's going to go over well-Lynne Groulx

Korkmaz said a general apology without specific measures that help different communities isn't helpful, adding that Indigenous communities are not a monolith. 

"What he has to realize is there are many groups of Indigenous people who are very diverse," she said. "He has to go to each of these countries that crimes were committed [in], to children, and apologize."

Groulx agreed it's time for the church to take responsibility, and invest in helping affected commuities find healing.

"You can't do that much damage that has been called now a genocide ... and not be involved in repairing the harm that you have caused, that your institution has caused," she said. 

One example she mentioned are the building of healing lodges or community centres. She said these centres are specifically being requested by Indigenous communities in B.C.

"That would be [up] to the communities to say this is how we want to do our healing, and this is the support that we need," she said.

Evelyn Korkmaz, a residential school survivor, says an apology without action would not be enough from the Pope. (Submitted by Evelyn Korkmaz)

Release the records

For Korkmaz, ownership means the Catholic Church releasing records that detail the history of residential schools in Canada.

"The reason why I say that is we need to find out what harms were done to the survivors ... as well as to identify the bodies that are buried on our school grounds, so we can tell their families and so they can bury them with dignity and respect," she said.

Earlier this year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he asked Pope Francis to commit to a number of restitution measures, including the publication of records associated with Canada's residential school system.

Although Pope Francis expressed "sorrow" over the "upsetting discovery", no residential school records were released.

These documents tell the true Indigenous history of Canada-Evelyn Korkmaz

For Korkmaz, releasing these documents — on top of fulfilling financial promises in the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement — would allow her to consider accepting a potential apology from Pope Francis.

"These documents tell the true Indigenous history of Canada," she said. 

Written by Mouhamad Rachini with files from CBC News and the Associated Press. Produced by Ines Colabrese and Idella Sturino.

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

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for residential school survivors and others affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

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