Residential school survivors and Fort Norman Métis members are reckoning with what it would mean for Pope Francis to deliver an apology during his planned visit to Canada.
First Nations, Métis, and Inuit delegates are set to travel to the Vatican, in Rome, from December 17 to 20. Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya will be part of that delegation.
Yakeleya earlier said the delegation will ask the Pope to formally apologize for the Roman Catholic Church’s decades-long role in running Canada’s residential schools, and ask him to deliver that apology during the Pope’s subsequent planned visit to Canada.
Rocky Norwegian, a member of the Fort Norman Métis community, said: “It’s fine to apologize, but if you’re not admitting to the crimes, it’s useless.”
Since learning of the Pope’s impending trip, leaders of the Fort Norman Métis say a papal apology would address the abuse suffered at Grollier Hall residential school in Inuvik.
“The church must be 100-percent accountable for their acts,” said Norwegian.
He says it is important that community members “hear from the Pope personally, to acknowledge the crimes, promise to prevent the Church from ever allowing this to happen again, and seek forgiveness from all of their victims.”
Having attended Grollier Hall in 1964 and again from 1971 to 1973, Norwegian said he would like to see the Pope come to the North and hear directly from survivors.
“Many victims have passed and took their pain with them to their graves, and that thought alone brings me great sadness,” he said.
There is one person, in particular, that Norwegian would like to have speak on behalf of survivors and their families: Rick Hardy.
“If there’s anybody that’s going to speak on behalf of the Métis, that has real knowledge of the early days and what really transpired, he was one of the survivors that tried to bring this forward along with my older brother that’s no longer with us today, and was never acknowledged,” said Norwegian.
Hardy, born and raised in Fort Norman – now Tulita – is a retired lawyer living on Vancouver Island, writing a book titled Molazha about his family history and life as a third-generation residential school survivor.
“I did not intend to write a book about my experiences, other than a cursory way,” Hardy explained.
“But as I got into it, and at about the time I was writing that part of the book, this whole business of the Pope visiting Canada and apologizing and so forth was starting to gain some traction. It forced me to focus on some of those issues. And so maybe 40 percent of the book ends up being about my experiences in residential school and on the history of the residential schools.”
Hardy spent six years in student residences. He lived in Grollier Hall from 1959 to 1963. He stressed that although often referred to as a residential school, Grollier Hall was a student residence established by the Canadian federal government and contracted out to the Catholic Church. Children living in Inuvik or in a student residence like Grollier Hall or the Anglican Church-run residence, Stringer Hall, went to the same public school, according to Hardy.
“It was just the residences that were involved in all of these bad experiences that we went through,” he explained. “My perspective is we were just warehoused in these places.”
With speculation about a papal apology in public circulation, Hardy started researching past apologies.
“We’ve had some experiences so far, with apologies from the government and from the churches,” he said. “And at best, I would call all of them soft apologies. They kind-of skirt around the issues.
“A few months ago, actually, I looked at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report about an apology from the Pope. And I didn’t pay much attention to it before but, because I was now focused on it, I started parsing down what the heck is this all about? And what the commission asked for was an apology similar to what was given to the Irish by Pope Benedict.”
Hardy tracked down a copy of Pope Benedict’s apology and after reading it, determined that Benedict didn’t apologize, but instead passed the buck to the Ireland dioceses.
“He took no responsibility on the shoulders of the Catholic Church for what happened,” he said.
“What the hell’s the point of bringing the Pope to Canada if he’s going to make an Irish-like apology to us?”
Hardy said he thinks delegates may be successful in getting the Pope to agree to issue an “Irish-like apology” in Canada, but said he doesn’t “have any hope of anything meaningful” resulting from that process.
Hardy sent a letter to the Pope in August of this year. In the letter, he told the Pope the Métis National Council does not speak for the Fort Norman Métis.
“I’ve read in a couple of places where the then-leader slash spokesman for the Métis National Council was very clear about being a very devout Catholic, and I don’t want a devout Catholic going speaking to the Pope about our problems,” he said.
Hardy’s second point was in line with Norwegian’s feelings: survivors should be the ones speaking on this matter.
“If you really want to deal with this issue, you have to deal with the survivors,” he said.
“You can’t deal with our political leaders. Most of them didn’t even go to student residences or residential schools. You have to find a way to engage with those of us that were abused in these terrible places.”
With or without a papal apology, forgiveness is not on the table for Hardy.
“There are many, including myself, who won’t forgive them,” he said.
“I stopped going to church a few decades ago, and I just don’t, you know, I don’t believe in the message that comes from them any more. Or maybe I don’t like the messenger.”
For Norwegian, seeking this acknowledgement is about supporting his community. “My brothers, sisters, cousins, grandparents, parents who all experienced the trauma, and myself as president of the Fort Norman Métis community, I’m doing this on their behalf.”
Hardy also has family in mind when he considers the impact of an acknowledgement of responsibility from the Pope on behalf of the Catholic Church.
“Why that’s important to me is that the issues are fading into time,” he explained.
“The abuse part of it is becoming pushed into the dark recesses of history. And I would love dearly to be able to sit down with my children and grandchildren and say, ‘yes, these things really happened to me. And here is the acknowledgement from the Church, that they were responsible for it.’”