Home Feature A private apology from the pope

A private apology from the pope

Courtesy Jonel Beauvais

On her grandmother’s 92nd birthday, Jonel Beauvais addressed pope Francis directly about the impacts of residential schools.

“All of our delegation was denied an opportunity to speak except for me,” Beauvais said. “I wore the last shawl that my grandmother made me. And I was able to go in there because I was bundled in it.”

Beauvais’ grandmother attended Indian day school, and her grandfather and uncles were residential school survivors. She was one of three women representing the Haudenosaunee External Relations Committee (HERC) who were holding empty cradleboards at a private audience with the pope last Friday morning. She said they initially sat in the front row, but were asked to leave because they weren’t residential school survivors.

“Honestly, we’re all survivors, right?” said Michelle Schenandoah of the Oneida Nation, who held one of the other cradleboards. “We couldn’t say we’re survivors who attended residential schools, but (the organizer) wouldn’t give us an opportunity to explain why and how we were there.”

The cradleboard address

Schenandoah was part of the delegation that travelled to the Vatican in the spring, where the first papal apology was issued. She served as a female spiritual advisor then, and addressed Francis in a private audience.

“I brought a cradleboard with me that I left with the pope overnight to reflect upon all of the children’s lives that were lost, and all the impacts on our families,” Schenandoah said. “When the cradleboard was returned to me, I was told the pope I wanted to see it when he came to Canada.”

After her trip to Rome, Schenandoah and other women in the HERC prepared four cradleboards for Francis’ visit to Canada. Only one was permitted to remain in the private audience in Quebec City, where Beauvais seized the opportunity to deliver the cradleboard address just before the event ended.

“We grandchildren have heard the infinite cries of our grandmothers and grandfathers. We inherited immeasurable violence, trauma and the shattered pieces of broken families as a result of broken children,” the address read.

“The veil has been lifted because of the unearthing of our children from your concentration camps. Schools don’t have graveyards for their students.

“Our Haudenosaunee leadership have been asking for a meeting with you for many many years and it is difficult to comprehend forgiveness to harm still being perpetrated by the institutions the church has birthed,” the address continued. “May the spirit of Indigenous children be in your consciousness and (serve as) lessons for your generations to come.”

Beauvais said she was able to remain in the room because she was listed as a survivor after community elders gave her their support. With cradleboard in tow, she sat beside residential school survivors from Indigenous communities across Turtle Island, one of whom was Ron Boyer.

“I told him who my uncles were: Donald, Henry and Albert Jocko. They all went to Spanish (residential school), and he knew them all,” Beauvais said. “I thought, ‘Okay, so my uncles are in the room too.’”

Ron and Sheila Boyer were the only residential school survivors among a dozen delegates who travelled from Kahnawake to Quebec City. Nearly 70 years after residential school, Ron and Sheila received an apology in a private audience with the pope.

Sheila gifted the pope with a stole and Ron spoke to him briefly in a mix of French and English. In return, the pope left Ron and Sheila with a commemorative bronze medallion to mark the papal visit to Canada. They were the only survivors to hold each of Francis’ hands as a couple.

“It was a beautiful feeling to be near the pope and hold his hand,” Sheila said. “He meant what he said. That’s what I felt.”

The pope recognizes genocide in residential schools

In a mass at the Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré Basilica on Thursday morning, pope Francis did not name residential schools in particular, but referred to a broad “sense of failure” by the church.

“Brothers and sisters, these are our own questions, and they are the burning questions that this pilgrim church in Canada is asking, with heartfelt sorrow, on its difficult and demanding journey of healing and reconciliation,” Francis said.

The homily came after Francis’ apologies made throughout the week were criticized for limiting responsibility to individuals who worked in residential schools. He spoke of “the wrong done by so many Christians to Indigenous Peoples,” but did not mention the Catholic Church’s role as a religious institution that operated more than half of Canada’s residential schools.

Francis’ visit culminated in a final statement made to reporters on his flight from Iqaluit to Rome last Friday, when he attributed residential schools to genocide.

“I condemned it, taking away children, changing culture, the mind, traditions, a so-called race. A whole culture,” Francis said to reporters. “Yes, it’s a technical word, genocide. I didn’t use it because it didn’t come to mind. But yes, it’s a genocide.”

Schenandoah said that it was certainly a start.

“People really did not want to believe what we had gone through, or whether or not it was even genocide,” Schenandoah said. “We’ve always known that it was genocide, but now it helps to open the eyes and minds of people around the world to actually see that and acknowledge it.”

Kenneth Deer, who was a political delegate in Quebec City representing the HERC, said Francis should have used the term in his apologies to survivors when he was in Canada, but welcomed it nonetheless.

“I think it was really important for the pope to finally admit that it was a genocide,” Deer said.

Discussions between delegates and bishops

In a working dinner last Thursday evening, Deer and other Onkwehón:we met with members of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) to discuss issues beyond the papal apology.

Deer spoke with the general secretary of the CCCB, Jean Vezina, along with two other bishops about the revocation of the papal bulls that make up the Doctrine of Discovery, which the HERC said “were the template, the blueprint, that colonizing nations have used toward the suffering and dispossession of Indigenous Peoples’ rights and dignity over the last 500 years.”

Delegates and bishops also discussed the returning of sacred items to Indigenous communities currently being held at the Vatican, releasing access to files, and potentially implementing a process for Indigenous Peoples to add items to the CCCB’s annual meeting agenda.

“Another thing is that (some of the bishops) knew nothing about the Haudenosaunee, because they assumed that the Haudenosaunee were part of the Assembly of First Nations. And we had to tell them that we’re not, we’re separate from them,” Deer said. “And it led to one of the items on the agenda, which was cultural sensitivity training for the bishops, because they need to be better informed about Indigenous Peoples.”

At the dinner, Beauvais and Schenandoah placed five cradleboards at empty seats in the room.

“We realized that the cradleboards make the church very uncomfortable,” Beauvais said. “It was a very good talking piece for a lot of people: they were either uncomfortable by it and wanted to get away, or they leaned in. It showed that the bishops themselves are not fully informed about a lot of things and they are all on different pages with this.”

Ron and Sheila’s son, Mohawk Council of Kahnawake chief Arnold Boyer, who also attended the dinner, brought issues around Quebec’s language debate to the discussion.

Courtesy Jonel Beauvais

“That’s the message I passed on to the bishop I spoke to on Thursday evening. I said, ‘You invite all the (Indigenous) people to come to your mass here, but you don’t respect them. You don’t speak English, you only speak in French,’” he said.

The Boyer family and delegates from the HERC all spoke of their frustrations with the poorly planned visit. They said that elders were forced to stand for hours in the heat after Thursday’s mass while waiting for transportation, and that most of the events ran behind schedule and did not adhere to the agenda.

“It was not well organized right from the start. Things kept changing and changing,” Deer said. “And we felt we were misled. We were assured that we would address the pope and we never got a chance to do that.

“However, we’re not going to give up, because that’s what they want us to do. We are committed to continue doing the work, because there is no one meeting, no one visit, no one event that is going to resolve everything. It’s an ongoing struggle and we will continue to fight for the rights of our people,” he said.

Looking forward

Franklin Williams, who was identified in last week’s coverage of the pope’s visit as a residential school survivor, said he does not call himself a survivor because it’s a label given by the federal government.

“It somehow helps them expunge their guilt,” Williams said. “You know, it’s up to each person. I respect those who call themselves survivors, but it’s not for me.”

Williams began attending the Spanish Indian Residential School for Boys in the fall of 1956, when he was six years old. He was supposed to stay until he was 18, but a lay person who taught at the school intervened after discovering that one of the priests was physically abusing Williams.

The following summer, Williams returned home to his mother. With several people’s help, he missed the train, stayed behind that fall, and never returned to residential school.

“I never thought it was something of interest because some kids were able to run away and maybe make it back, but some died on the way home or they disappeared,” Williams said. “So that’s why I say I was just lucky.”

Williams insists he doesn’t live with survivor’s guilt, but considers himself extraordinarily fortunate for the opportunity to return to his mother. Nevertheless, he credits residential school as the sever from his language and culture. He said it was the reason he lost his connection to his grandmother, who was teaching him Mohawk before he was forced to attend Spanish.

It was also misstated that Williams has dealt with depression and isolation for most of his life. Williams said that he would at times feel sadness on grey days in the fall, but has since addressed it. He said he’s spent much of his life working with and for his community to make positive changes and look forward from residential school.

“To me, it’s looking to achieve something with our community members, as a team,” Williams said. “Work has always been therapeutic. Any kind of work where you feel you’re benefiting by doing something that’s positive or constructive, because you see a physical result.”

Beauvais said that Francis hung his head as she addressed him on Friday. Organizers tried to cut her off throughout her impromptu speech, but she gripped tightly onto the beaded blue and black cradleboard until she fulfilled her mission. She said in place of rage, it was pride that she brought before the pope.

“The greatest thing that we could do is just keep strengthening ourselves,” she said. “I just want people to know that your power, your fire, is everything they never wanted you to have. And this is why we as (Indigenous Peoples) have to invest in our healing, in ourselves.”


Diane Yeung
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