Warning: The story below contains details of residential schools that may be upsetting. Canada’s Indian Residential School Survivors and Family Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day at 1-866-925-4419.
Willie Littlechild doesn’t remember blowing out candles or receiving any gifts on his birthday when he was a child. In fact, there was no acknowledgement of the day at all.
That is because Littlechild grew up in a residential school in central Alberta, Canada, and celebrating birthdays was forbidden there.
For the 14 years that he attended the school, Littlechild wasn’t even called by his name. Instead, he was given a number by the staff and Catholic clergy who ran the school – one of 139 across Canada where more than 150,000 Indigenous children were forcibly separated from their families, communities and cultures.
But this year, on his 78th birthday, Littlechild received the gift he had long hoped for: an apology from Pope Francis for the role of the Roman Catholic Church in the abuse and neglect of First Nations, Inuit and Metis children at the schools.
Littlechild was in Rome with a delegation of Indigenous elders and representatives on April 1 to hear the apology firsthand. He had been “praying and dreaming” of such a moment, he says, “but I never thought I would live to see the day that it would happen right in front of me”.
A few weeks later, as he sits in his office in his home community of Maskwacis, Alberta, wearing an orange ribbon shirt in a traditional Cree design and an elaborate feathered chief’s headdress – parts of his Native culture that were banned in the residential schools, Littlechild reflects on the apology.
“It was a moment of mixed emotion,” he says. “I choked up because it was such a long time … in a way you bring it back to 150 years ago when it all started.”
Canada’s residential school system began in the late 1800s. The last of the schools closed in 1996. More than 60 percent of them were run by the Catholic Church.
During Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which ran from 2008 to 2015, survivors testified about the physical, sexual, emotional and spiritual abuse they endured at the schools. Many children never made it out alive. Last summer, the unmarked graves of thousands of Indigenous children were found on the grounds of former residential schools across the country.
Littlechild was one of the three TRC commissioners. He listened to nearly 7,000 survivor testimonies.
“I used to have an empty chair beside me (during the TRC hearings) and I did it for a purpose,” he says. “I would have a little chair beside me … empty.” He stops as tears pool in his brown eyes. “But it wasn’t empty because I had called in the child’s spirit to sit beside me. And not only to prop me up, to give me strength, but to honour and then send them back to the place of forever happiness after that hearing.”
Several years ago, Littechild carried a small wooden coffin holding the bones of an unnamed six-year-old boy from Maskwacis. The boy had died in a residential school decades earlier and his remains were being returned to his community.
“I was six years old, (when I first went to residential school) but by the Great Spirit, I was able to offer another six-year-old boy a proper burial,” he says, adding: “Maybe that’s what it’ll take, to help in this healing process. To have a traditional wake for all those that are missing, because some old people say their souls are wandering around out there because nobody has done their ceremonies.”
In Rome, Littlechild says he thought about “the many, many, many survivors who told us they never had a birthday acknowledged and all they wanted to hear was ‘I’m sorry,’ because then they could begin their healing journey or continue their healing journey”.
The day Pope Francis apologised in the Sala Clementina Hall in the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace, Littlechild says the Indigenous delegates felt the presence of their ancestors in the room.
He recalls how “during the private encounter with the pope, a breeze of air opened one of the shutters on the windows”. It was a sign, he says, that their ancestors had come to witness the moment.
During the meeting, the delegates could hear the sound of drums being played outside in St Peter’s Square by Indigenous musicians who had accompanied them during their week-long visit to Rome.
“So, after [the meeting] we decided, we were going to have an honour dance to honour the pope for what he had just done,” he says.
Once they were outside in the famous square, Littlechild, who uses a walker due to several injuries he sustained during his career as a sportsman, shakily stood up, beaming with delight, and began to dance.
“I said: ‘I don’t care how much this hurts…I’m going to dance.’ So, I did,” he recalls.
Then the delegates sang a birthday song for him. It was, he says, “a moment of great honour and happiness”.
But that happiness came at the end of a gruelling week – and generations of grief and trauma – for the delegates.
Andy Alook, a residential school intergenerational survivor from Big Stone Cree Nation in northern Alberta, travelled to Rome with the delegates to provide them with mental health support. He and other support workers counselled the delegates throughout the week.
He believes the healing process will take time and look different for people depending on what stage they are at in it. And for many, that healing journey may prove difficult.
“I think (going forward) you can expect an increase in the number of mental health supports that are going to be required,” he explains, speaking via Zoom two weeks after returning from Rome. “There will be an increase in opioid misuse and domestic violence.”
To deal with this, he believes survivors will need “family unity, collaboration and partnerships”, whether with government, faith groups or other Indigenous groups. And, he adds, by “going back to our traditional roots, you know, going back to the land, finding elders.”
There is, he reflects, “more than one way that people can find healing”, and he believes the pope’s apology has helped clear the way for better days ahead.
Being in the room when the pope apologised was an intense and emotional experience for everyone, he says, but it made way for hope.
“I know, as exhausting and mentally and physically tiring as it was, there’s always the opportunity now to hope for a brighter future. If not for myself and for my daughter [then for] the generations that come after us.
“Moving forward there’s an opportunity there to create new relationships with everybody that had the same experience, but also to create a new relationship with the Catholic Church, if that’s what people choose to do.”
Reverend Maurice Henry Sands wears a multi-coloured Indigenous vest and a black-and-white beaded crucifix. The 66-year-old travelled to Rome from Washington, DC, to join the Indigenous delegation from Canada.
Sands is the executive director of the Black and Indian Mission Office in Washington, DC, and a priest in the Archdiocese of Detroit. He is also Anishinaabe and a member of the Bkejwanong First Nation in Michigan.
This was not the first time he had been to Rome to participate in an event at the Vatican, but it was the most significant, he told Al Jazeera.
“I’ve been asked before: ‘How do you reconcile the negative aspects of the history of the Catholic Church with Native Peoples?’ And I tell them that, in my own life, my mother experienced in a very significant way the negative. Her parents were taken away from their parents and sent to Indian boarding schools.”
But, Sands says, she learned how to forgive and taught him to do the same. “And that’s the way we’re going to be able to heal,” he says.
“It’s easy to get caught up in anger and resentment. But God calls us to love him and to love one another,” Sands continues. “And even if people don’t love us, we still are called to love them.”
His maternal grandparents were “very traumatised” by their experiences in residential school, he says. That trauma was felt not only in their lives but in the lives of their children and grandchildren. But, he says, when God called him into the priesthood several decades ago, that did not deter him from committing his life and soul to the Church that had caused that harm.
“It’s an issue (the residential schools) that I’ve always been aware of, that I know is very wrong or unjust, along with lots of other issues that are wrong and unjust as part of our history,” he says.
“As a people, as a family, as an individual, it has always been important to me to try to look for ways to help people to heal, to deal with the very wrong things that have happened and to move forward in their lives in a positive way, including myself.
‘That’s the way that we’re going to be able to move forward and also the way to not allow anger and hatred to consume us,” he reflects.
Littlechild says it wasn’t until he was in his 60s and participating in the TRC that he began the process of healing. As he listened to other survivors sharing their testimonies, he started to relive the abusive experiences that he had endured.
“What was happening was I was getting really tired and yet, every day, I would go for a long run, I would pray. But I was really, really tired. It was compassion fatigue. I was taking these stories in, but I wasn’t releasing them,” he says.
So, he attended several “deep” counselling sessions offered to him while he was on the road with the TRC.
“It was kind of strange how it happened. A counsellor asked me: ‘Why do you like hockey so much?’ And I give him the old standard answer: ‘Because it makes me feel good. I feel good being in shape. I like to play.’”
But when the counsellor pushed him further, everything he had been holding back erupted.
“He said: ‘Is it that you like winning or you hate losing? Or what is it? Why do you like it?’ And I just said: ‘I told you.’ And he told me: ‘No, no, you didn’t answer my question as to why do you like hockey so much?’ I said: ‘I told you!’ So he was really provoking me, actually digging up my anger.”
Littlechild says he came face to face with his unresolved trauma.
“So, [the counsellor] he said to me: “You know why you like it? Because you’re allowed to hit people in hockey. And what you’ve been doing is you’ve been taking your anger out on the ice because you’re allowed to hit another player’…and I was not realising that’s how I was dealing with my anger.”
Now Littlechild encourages other survivors to forgive their abusers. But he says many are struggling to heal and come to terms with the pope’s apology.
“So I say to them, try it, try it again, to forgive. It starts with you. It starts with me. And if you still can’t do that, don’t take it out on your children. Don’t take it out on your spouse or don’t take it out on your family, your anger, because that’s where sometimes a cycle of violence happens in our communities or within a family. The deep anger inside that person through the punishment of his or her children, their family, because that’s what was done to them.”
For Littlechild and other delegates and survivors, the apology is not yet complete. They invited the pope to Indigenous territories in Canada to deliver another apology on the lands where the abuses took place. He accepted the invitation and is scheduled to travel to Quebec City, Iqaluit and Edmonton in late July.
“He needs to do it [apologise] when he comes here, to the survivors. So not only can they heal, but forgive because many are still very angry,” Littlechild says, describing how survivors have told him: “I will never forgive the Catholic Church for what they did to our children.”
“Then we can talk about reconciliation,” he says. “And what is reconciliation? It’s a full spectrum. You have the truth now, but I find now not fully because of the discoveries of the unmarked graves.”
Littlechild hopes the Church will follow its apology with actions such as returning the stolen Indigenous ceremonial artefacts it is holding at the Vatican and paying residential school survivors the tens of millions of dollars in compensation it agreed to in 2006.
“Money won’t be enough to ever satisfy one for the harm and suffering that they went through. Not only them personally, but their family and communities. Some need more. For example, we heard the call for the lands on which churches are sitting today in Indigenous communities, to give that land back,” Littlechild says.
He also wants Pope Francis to rescind the Doctrine of Discovery which was put in place in 1493. The Doctrine enabled European settlers to seize and pillage Indigenous lands and resources as well as enslave Indigenous peoples in the name of “Christianising” the new world.
“I pray and hope that it’ll happen here on our Native lands, and he [the pope] will deal with the unfinished business in a sense, the papal bulls to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery that has done so much harm, that was a mischaracterisation and a reason to dispossess us of our lands, and the sacred relationship we have with our lands.”
Littlechild stops for a moment, then smiles and winks before adding: “Well, he may have another surprise up his sleeve, you know? It just might happen here.”