One year ago, Peyasu Wuttunee stood at a sacred fire in Maskwacis, Alta., next to residential school survivors and their family members.
He was there to offer support as people dried their tears with tissues, placed them in paper bags, and burned them.
It was a symbol of healing for some after they listened to Pope Francis speak at length about the lasting harms of residential schools for Indigenous people, and tell the assembled crowd: “I am deeply sorry.”
Wuttunee, the manager of Maskwacis counselling and support services, said there was a significant increase in people reaching out for mental-health resources in the two months after the Pope’s visit. It was something the organization prepared for, knowing many people would feel the impact of trauma resurfacing.
“My sense is that the younger people had more of a struggle with it,” he said of the aftermath of the Pope’s apology.
“The older people, or the survivors, at least the ones in attendance, were open to that healing. Whereas the younger generation were a little bit more angry about it, the colonial past.”
As a year passes since the pontiff made his “penitential pilgrimage” to Canada, Wuttunee said the apology was one step in a healing journey for some. But it was also just one of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 calls to action, and “there’s a whole bunch more to go.”
After the Pope spoke in Maskwacis on July 25, 2022, he visited the Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples in Edmonton, and travelled to Lac Ste. Anne, a sacred site for several First Nations and nearby Métis settlements, during the annual pilgrimage to the lake.
Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation Chief Tony Alexis said the Pope’s apology, and the subsequent repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery this year, fulfil some of the long-standing demands of the head of the Catholic Church.
The Doctrine of Discovery is a legal concept, backed by 15th-century papal bulls, that justified Europeans’ claiming of Indigenous lands.
But a year later, “I don’t see the true impact of it,” Alexis said. “The Church could do more of building that bridge of that reconciliation.”
As a chief, he said his responsibility is to reflect the varied reactions and mixed emotions that persist among his people.
“We can go on any one of those paths and each one would have its own story,” he said.
“For the Catholic faith, a miracle has happened that Pope Francis came here. For the ones that are harmed, we could say that it’s not enough, and so there’s much work that needs to be done. And for the ones that practice their ceremonies and so on, for them, they will not be told how to behave again.”
‘We did survive a genocide’
Ermineskin Cree Nation member Josh Littlechild watched the Pope’s address remotely with his father, a residential school survivor.
Littlechild is also the nephew of Honorary Chief Wilton Littlechild of Ermineskin Cree Nation, a former Truth and Reconciliation Commission member who was among the Indigenous delegates who travelled to Rome last spring to ask that the Pope apologize for the Church’s role in the residential school system in Canada.
Josh Littlechild said it took time for him to process his own reaction to hearing Pope Francis’s words last year. But he imagines children studying the impact of the visit decades from now, and says he feels optimistic about change for the future.
But he points to another significant moment — when the Pope was about to fly back to Rome, and he acknowledged that the forced assimilation of Indigenous children in residential schools was genocide.
“I didn’t use the word genocide because it didn’t come to mind but I described genocide,” Pope Francis told reporters.
“We did survive a genocide,” Littlechild said. “So that acknowledgement that comes with truth and reconciliation — the truth came out.
“In my opinion, more and more people in Canada just have to plainly call it what it is. It’s a genocide.”
Luci Johnson, a Samson Cree Nation member and day school survivor, attended the pontiff’s apology in person.
She spoke up against the Pope’s presence at the time, and she still feels the apology came far too late for many who suffered at residential schools, including both her parents, who are now deceased.
But she said ultimately, she needed to be there for her family.
“The same day, I went to both where my mom is buried and where my grandmother is buried and I said, ‘I saw the Pope for you.'”
Johnson said she remains focused on tangible action that will help the generations of Indigenous people still suffering from the deep, lasting harms of residential schools. She said she still doesn’t see nearly enough support for desperately needed prevention programs and efforts to help people reconnect with their culture and language.
Littlechild, too, said there are more concrete steps he’d like to see. Lately, he said he’s been thinking about how it should be a priority for services at the Catholic church in Maskwacis to be done in Cree.
“I’m thinking, moving forward, the people who destroyed the language, that took it away, they should be responsible for putting it back now.”
Johnson said there will never be justice for what her parents experienced at residential schools. But she won’t stop raising her voice about the work that she says the Catholic Church and the Canadian government still have to do.
“Keep that ‘sorry’ going through the communities,” she said.
“If the people of the magnitude and power came in and say, ‘I know the Pope came in … but how can I help you?’
“We don’t see that. Once the fanfare’s done, it’s done.”
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available to provide support for survivors and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour service at 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.