By Lydia O’Kane
Among the thousands of people attending Mass presided over by Pope Francis at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium on Tuesday will be Phil Fontaine, an Indigenous Canadian leader, who completed his third and final term as National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations in 2009.
For the indigenous leader, who as a child was forced to attend a residential school operated by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate at Sagkeeng, this visit by the Pope has already been “momentous.”
He heard for himself on Monday the Pope’s words of apology on Canadian soil when he addressed around 2,000 residential school survivors, Chiefs, leaders, elders, knowledge keepers and youth from First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities in Maskwacis Park ("Bear hills", in the Cree language)
There, Pope Francis spoke of his deep sense of “pain and remorse” for the suffering endured by the Indigenous peoples of Canada, and for the violence of forced assimilation inflicted on those in the residential school system.
Speaking to Vatican News’ Christopher Wells, he described hearing the Pope express his sorrow, pain and indignation to survivors as “special.”
A momentous occasion
“It’s not every day we have one of the most powerful public figures in the world come before a community of former residential school survivors, and their families coming from communities far and wide in this country, and to have him [the Pope] humble himself and seek forgiveness from the survivors. I thought personally, it took a lot of courage, humility, and it was a special moment.”
Mr. Fontaine recalled the commitment Pope Francis made when he met with Canadian Indigenous Delegations between 28 March and 1 April in which he heard their stories about life in the residential schools.
“He said, ‘I will speak further on this issue when I come to visit you on your lands.’ And so to see him here today saying essentially what he told us in Rome, but in some more detail, I think was really quite special.”
The power of forgiveness
During Monday’s gathering, Pope Francis recognized that begging for pardon is not sufficient and is only a first step towards healing. He also underlined that more needs to be done “to create a culture able to prevent such situations from happening.”
Mr. Fontaine pointed out that it will be up to each individual affected by their experience in the residential school system to decide whether they accept the Pope’s apology, but he also highlighted the power of forgiveness as the path to true healing.
On the matter of concrete action, he said, there were a number of issues that needed to be addressed.
“We still have the issue of unmarked graves, there is still the issue of records,” as well as, the question of lands. However, the indigenous leader noted that there has been co-operation on the part of the Oblate order which allowed a researcher to spend time at the Vatican, where he found hundreds of photos of residential school students. He stressed that this was an example of “some practical steps we can take together.”