The Four Nations of Maskwacis are preparing for the papal visit next month with mixed emotions. While there is some excitement that the anticipated apology will bring a long-awaited opportunity for healing and closure, there is also trepidation of what others feel will be the opening of old wounds.
With the official announcement that Pope Francis will come to Maskwacis on July 25, the Maskwacis chiefs held a press conference on June 27 to address the media. Chief Randy Ermineskin, Chief Vernon Saddleback and Chief Desmond Bull were present as well as Chase McDougall as a proxy representative for Montana Cree Nation. They were joined by former Truth and Reconciliation commissioner and international chief Dr. Wilton Littlechild.
Littlechild said that with the Pope recently issuing an apology on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church, there was a sense of justice and of healing, but something was still missing. He said he believes that is an opportunity to forgive, which he feels this visit will be.
“We have not had that chance, to forgive, and I see that as a very important step in our journey,” said Littlechild, adding many have asked him to offer their forgiveness to the Pope on their behalf so they can begin to heal.
The Ermineskin Residential School is thought to be one of the largest residential school sites in Canada.
Dr. Littlechild said planning for the enormity of the event, with current estimates that at least 15,000 residential school survivors will descend on the community, has already begun and is happening around the clock.
The Pope is expected to engage with the public in Maskwacis for about 52 minutes. Organizers anticipate he will visit the residential school site, and may want to pray alone in the church before departing, said Littlechild.
He added that while Maswkacis may not be able to accommodate all those wanting to come to hear the Pope, that there will be other opportunities to gather to hear him while he is in Alberta.
Pope Francis is scheduled to arrive in Edmonton on July 24 for a brief ceremony at the airport. The next day he is set to join survivors in Maskwacis. He will then travel to Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples in downtown Edmonton.
On July 26, Francis is scheduled to attend a large mass at the Commonwealth Stadium, also in Edmonton.
Chief Ermineskin welcomed residential school survivors from coast to coast to come to Maskwacis to hear the Pope speak. He added it’s going to be an emotional time, but what Maskwacis is looking for is the truth.
Ermineskin noted that while a lot of planning is going on for the day of the event, just as much consideration, if not more, needs to be given to supporting the mental health of their members who may feel triggered after the visit.
He said they’ve already engaged Health Canada for assistance and have spoken to their own mental health workers in preparation. He is concerned though, that with the amount of people who may need support, it may not be enough.
Chief Bull spoke about the intergenerational effect of the 60s scoop and the loss of language and culture it caused. He explained that as a younger chief, while he participates in ceremonies, he is slowly learning his own Cree language.
“Real reconciliation is about who we are as individuals and and citizens of a country,” said Bull. “I hope it begins some form of closure.”
Chief Saddleback spent four years at the Ermineskin Residential School. He was an alter boy, and said he felt excited when he heard the Pope would be coming to Maskwacis.
While he said that was his reaction, he acknowledged that he is a chief of 9,000 people and there are a spectrum of feelings being experienced in the community.
He said for himself, he didn’t truly understand the impact of residential schools on him and his family until he understood the affect it had on his parents, who he lost as a teenager, both to alcoholism.
“Healing begins when you start speaking the truth and truth begins with an apology,” said Saddleback, adding that’s why he feels excited for the visit.
“This is a pivotal moment for the world to witness and understand the impacts of the intergenerational traumas suffered by Indigenous people in the residential school systems in Canada and around the world,” reads a statement from the Maskwacis Cree Tribal Council. “This in an important step towards reconciliation for everyone to be part of, to collaborate for a true sense truth and reconciliation.”
– With files from The Canadian Press