Although the occasion was sombre, there was a vibrancy at Maskwa Park July 25 as hundreds of Indigenous People wore traditional regalia, ribbon skirts, and many wore orange Every Child Matters shirts. Though the sky was overcast, there was colour everywhere.
His Holiness Pope Francis made a historical visit to Maskwacis, Alta., as part of what he called a pilgrimage of penance. He first visited the Ermineskin Cree Nation cemetery, where he spent a few minutes alone praying. Nearby, there were symbolic teepees and signs set up at the former Ermineskin residential school site.
“On this first step of my journey, I have wanted to make space for memory. Here, today, I am with you to recall the past, to grieve with you, to bow our heads together in silence and to pray before the graves,” said the Pope in his address.
While not all the graves in the cemetery are those lost to the local residential school, it’s known in the community that some of them certainly are.
At Maskwa Park the Pope gave the much-anticipated, and for many, long-awaited public apology for the Catholic church’s role in the residential school system in Canada.
“I have come to your native lands to tell you in person of my sorrow to implore God’s forgiveness, healing and reconciliation, to express my closeness and to pray with you and for you,” he said.
“I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous Peoples.”
Survivors who spoke said it would be be hard to accept an apology, and that it needs to be followed by action to not be hollow words.
The Pope stated in his speech that an important part of reconciliation will be to take further action including conducting a serious investigation into the truth of what happened in Canadian residential schools.
“When you are abused that is all you think about,” said International Chief and former Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner Dr. Wilton Littlechild in his opening remarks.
“Forgiveness is not about rewarding a perpetrator … Forgiveness is about finding peace as you let go of the hurt and anger you have been clinging to.”
Littlechild himself was a Ermineskin residential school student.
“We are not savages, we are people,” said Littlechild. “We are the people, we are the children of Mother Earth.”
Traditional Indigenous singer Gerry Saddleback gave a powerful rendition of the Canada national anthem in Cree. Though the words may have been unfamiliar to some, emotions of grief and anger came through clearly in her performance.
During the proceedings a long red cloth bearing thousands of names of children found buried at residential schools sites was revealed, being carried in a long train around the arbour for all to see.
The memorial banner, 50 metres long and four feet wide, bears the names of precisely 4,120 children. Those are the children have currently been identified and listed on the National Student Memorial Register at www.nctr.ca.
The creation of the banner was the first national, public commemoration to record the names of so many of the children who never came home from all residential schools across Canada.
The causes of death were varied, including disease (tuberculosis, scrofula, pneumonia and other diseases of poverty), accidents and deaths due to abuse and neglect, and poor sanitary conditions.
To this day, there are still families that do not know where their family members are buried.