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Kahnawake reacts to pope visit

Courtesy Arnold Boyer

Ronald and Sheila Boyer met when they were teenagers in residential school, where they married two years later. After 65 years of marriage, they received an apology from pope Francis for the harms caused by residential schools.

Last week, Ron and Sheila were accompanied by their son, Mohawk Council of Kahnawake chief Arnold Boyer and their daughter-in-law, Anne Marie Boyer, at a mass in the Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré Basilica in Quebec City. They were joined by delegates from 20 Indigenous communities across Turtle Island to witness the pope’s address.

Before their journey to Quebec City, Ron and Sheila sat in their yard with two of their five children, Arnold and Carol. They recounted their time in residential school and its impacts on their family.

For six years, Ron attended the Spanish Indian Residential School for Boys, where he was a student at the St. Charles Garnier High School in Spanish, Ont. At the opposite end of the property, Sheila was attending the St. Joseph’s School for Girls, also known as the Spanish Indian Residential School for Girls. 

“I got in trouble a lot with the Jesuit priest,” Ron said. “I would never stand by and watch a younger boy get picked on.”

At Spanish, Ron learned to fight and stick up for younger boys, while Sheila learned to work domestic chores. Ron and Sheila didn’t speak in detail about their experience at Spanish, but they both consider themselves survivors of residential school.

“You know, they talk about the next generations that are feeling the effects of residential schools, because we know for a fact it’s intergenerational,” Carol said. “Sometimes I feel the sadness and I wonder where it comes from.”

Carol said it was her mother’s time in residential school that affected her upbringing most. She said it was particularly difficult for her parents to show affection, though they cared for and loved their children endlessly. Regardless of their personal experiences, Indigenous children who attended residential schools are impacted the moment they are forcibly separated from their families and culture.

“Being in a position of leadership in the community, I hear stories from elders besides my parents,” said Boyer. “The stories and experiences they went through, they’re not pretty stories. The daily beatings, verbal, physical abuse that happened to them.”

“There are many others in the community who went to residential schools, especially in Spanish,” Boyer continued. “Many of them have passed on, so I will bring their memories with me in my thoughts, in my mind, to listen to the pope apologize for the abuse and mistreatment they suffered.”

While Ron and Sheila welcomed the papal apology, some survivors in the community saw it as an empty gesture.

Nick Huard, a Mi’kmaq elder who’s lived in Kahnawake for over 30 years and a residential school survivor, said that the visit is “a farce, a show.”

“It’s not going to bring anybody back and it’s not going to make anything better,” Huard said.

Huard was six years old when he was sent to residential school, where he was physically and sexually abused by priests. A month after he was taken from his family, authorities told Huard’s family that he had died, then told Huard that a “big sickness” killed his family. He eventually escaped, but lives with the traumas of residential school.

Huard said he doesn’t count on the papal apology to bring any semblance of peace. Beyond the physical, sexual and mental abuse, the Catholic Church’s role in residential schools was part of a colonial agenda that attempted to erase Indigenous Peoples.

“First of all, they’ll have to admit to genocide,” Huard said. “And they should have a museum so that people can see what they’ve done.”

In place of empty words and lavish theatrics, Huard said he would prefer money and resources be directed to clean water and food for children in Indigenous communities.

“Why spend all that money on the pope’s visit when it could be spent on kids that are in need of food and water? It’s a big old waste of money as far as I’m concerned,” Huard said. “The money that’s being spent is on him, not on the survivors and future generations. It’s all about the pope. But there’s so much more left to do.”

Kenneth Deer, who is a political delegate in Quebec City as a member of the Haudenosaunee External Relations Committee, echoes Huard’s sentiments for actions beyond an apology.

“The Haudenosaunee External Relations Committee is not looking for an apology. We need action by the Vatican to repair some of the damage that was done by the Papal Bull that makes up the Doctrine of Discovery,” Deer said.

In a press release, the Haudenosaunee External Relations Committee called for a revocation of the Papal Bulls, which was a “fiction created by the pope in the 1400s (that it) had any right to declare that newly discovered lands which were not occupied by Christians, could be claimed by European monarchs for themselves.” 

“​​These Papal decrees became the basis for the legalized possession of all lands on North America, which we call Turtle Island. It remains ingrained in the constitutional, legislative, and legal systems in Canada and the United States, where our Haudenosaunee and Indigenous relatives continue to reside,” the release read.

Deer said the committee would be attending a working dinner with the Canadian Council of Catholic Bishops that was scheduled for Thursday evening along with other Indigenous Peoples to talk about a plan of action, including returning sacred items from the Vatican and having access to files.

“We look at the pope as not only the head of the Catholic Church, but also a head of state and what that state has done through its religion to our people,” Deer said. “So we’re looking at having a nation to nation relationship with the Vatican just as we do with all other states, and where we can have a platform as equals to discuss the issues that are controversial between us.”

As for the apology itself, Deer said that it fell short of addressing the harms inflicted by the Catholic Church.

“It’s very clear that the pope is trying to apologize for individuals or small groups in the church, and that is not what was needed,” Deer said. “The church as an institution is heavily responsible for residential schools and the Pope seems to only be making an apology on behalf of bad actors in the church and that is not sufficient.”

On Thursday afternoon, Ron and Sheila said they were exhausted from a long day of waiting for the Pope, only to hear a mass that they couldn’t understand.

“I didn’t really hear an apology. It was all in French to begin with, no English. So we couldn’t understand,” Sheila said. “But it was still good to see him, to be there.”

Ron and Sheila were the only two survivors who travelled from Kahnawake to Quebec City. Other survivors felt the trip would be best appreciated by those who would find comfort in the papal apology.

Franklin Williams, a residential school survivor who attended Spanish when he was six years old, said he’s spent most of his life dealing with the effects of depression and isolation. He declined an invitation to Quebec City because he felt it best to continue focusing his energy on the positive developments in his community and looking forward.

“I did not want to take up a space that others may benefit by going,” Williams said. “I feel the pope’s visit will benefit those who choose to avail themselves and wish them well. Niá:wen.”


Diane Yeung
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