Susan Enge will think of her mother’s time in residential school during the long trip south from the Northwest Territories to see Pope Francis in Alberta.
Her thoughts will dwell on that heritage and the complexities of being Indigenous and Catholic during the eight-hour drive from her Fort Smith home to Yellowknife, where she is due to catch a flight to Edmonton on Sunday.
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“Being a devout Catholic, I think it’s important to forgive people for their wrongdoings,” she says.
“This is a personal choice and a personal journey for anyone seeking healing through the Pope’s messages.”
Enge goes with her 24-year-old daughter to a group of about 40 people organized by the Diocese of Mackenzie-Fort Smith.
Thousands of people are expected to travel by bus, plane and even boat in the coming days to attend events during the historic papal visit. Pope Francis is expected to land in Edmonton on Sunday before heading to Quebec City on Wednesday and Iqaluit on Friday.
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Francis is expected to issue an apology for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in residential schools at the site of the former Ermineskin Indian Residential School in the community of Maskwacis, Alberta.
An estimated 150,000 Aboriginal children were forced to attend residential schools for a century, and the Catholic Church ran about 60% of the establishments.
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Fern Hendersen says he was confused about who he was after suffering emotional, spiritual and physical abuse at a Manitoba residential school as a child. For much of his life he believed it was his fault and never felt he belonged in anything.
He says the hearing with Pope Francis will be an acknowledgment of this truth and this pain.
“I’m finally going to hear the words ‘I’m sorry,’ sorry for taking my identity, sorry for taking my language, sorry for taking my culture and my family away from me,” Hendersen says, holding back tears.
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He attends the events with his sister and a group from the Sagkeeng First Nation. He expects many painful memories to resurface during the long journey. But, he says, it is important to seek out all of his family members who have not lived to see the day when the head of the Catholic Church recognizes the harm that has been done.
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He also goes there for his children and grandchildren “so that they can move forward in a positive way”.
Arranging trips has not been easy as plans and funds have recently begun to materialize for Indigenous organizations and communities. Many Indigenous people, including Hendersen, learned this week if they could participate in the events.
Chief Bobby Cameron of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations expressed deep concern about the lack of coordination. Many survivors don’t have the money or the technology to attend the Pope’s visit, he said.
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“Survivors had no choice when they were children, and now some are waiting for approval from the very systems that tore them away from their families, their homes, their cultures and their identities as children, it’s absolutely ridiculous,” he said in a recent press release.
The federal government is investing $30.5 million for community activities, ceremonies and travel for survivors during the visit.
Despite the logistical difficulties, the importance of the trip prompted many people to attend.
A large group organized by the Manitoba Metis Federation rented buses to travel to Alberta for two days.
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Andrew Carrier, who is a day school survivor, says he felt silenced for years after being sexually abused by a priest. His father was also abused, Carrier says. It’s a legacy that will weigh heavily on his heart as he roams the highways across the vast prairies.
“As part of the healing journey, it is very important to be heard and recognized by the pope,” says Carrier.
Carrier, like many Métis citizens of Manitoba, is Catholic. He says the papal visit will be crucial for their healing and for charting paths with the church.
“It’s a closure opportunity,” he said.
Sol Mamakwa, deputy leader of Ontario’s opposition New Democrats, says he spoke with survivors and spiritual leaders before deciding to take part in the papal tour stops in Alberta. He also attended boarding school.
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“I chose to go because the fly-in First Nations people I represent need to be more vocal,” says Mamakwa, who represents the riding of Kiiwetinoong in northern Ontario.
Grand Chief of Manitoba’s Settee Garrison Keewatinowi Okimakanak, who represents First Nations in northern Manitoba, says while he hopes to hear a heartfelt apology from Francis, the recognition won’t make a difference for everyone.
“Healing happens differently for all of us,” Settee said in a recent press release.
“There is no right way to heal from the generational trauma that has been inflicted on our people as a result of the residential school system.
– With files from Holly McKenzie-Sutter in Toronto
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