Residential school survivors, advocates keeping their guard up after bishops' apology

Warning – this article alludes to sexual abuse

MONTREAL -- Residential school survivors and advocates say they’re keeping their guard up after a prominent Canadian arm of the Catholic Church apologized Friday for decades of abuse and trauma inflicted at the institutions.

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) issued a statement Friday acknowledging what it described as "grave abuses that were committed by some members of our Catholic community" at the schools.

Residential school survivor Kakaionstha Betty Deer, 83, says an apology is just one step in a long road to address the trauma inflicted on children across the country.

“After all these years … they knew what was going on,” said Deer. “To say you’re sorry, it’s just not good enough.”

Deer attended a residential school in Spanish, Ontario. She says her mother was encouraged to send her and her sister there when she was six-years-old.

She says that, during the three years she spent in the institution, she was abused and malnourished.

She alleged one particular event where she was sexually abused by a nun after being accused of name-calling.

She was eventually taken home, she said, after her mother came to visit the institution and found her visibly underfed.

“When my mother came, she saw how skinny I was,” said Deer.

The decades that followed were defined by a long healing process. Deer says she was only able to address her trauma as an adult after years of trying to forget her time at the school.

“I would push it all down,” she said. “It was only when I was in my 50’s when I said: ‘I want to find out what's in there, what's happened to me’. Then, I went on my healing journey, and I use all traditional medicine.”

Deer’s experiences are not unlike those described by Indigenous survivors of residential schools across the country.

There were 139 residential schools in the federally funded program, which operated in Canada between the late 19th century and 1996. Many of them were run by the Catholic Church.

Thousands of the 150,000 First Nations, Metis and Inuit children who attended these schools died with some estimates placing the number of deaths as high as 15,000.

Hundreds of unmarked graves were found at the sites of several former residential schools earlier this year; in some cases the number of children buried at the sites is believed to be several times higher than any official death toll.

'I DON'T NEED HIS APOLOGY ... I TURNED TO MY OWN INDIGENOUS CEREMONIES'

While Indigenous advocates have long called for an official apology from high-ranking members of the Catholic Church, Friday’s statement left some with more questions than answers.

When news broke that 215 unmarked graves were discovered at a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., Kahnawake resident Jessica Oesterreich organized a demonstration outside the Catholic church in her community.

Residents placed children’s shoes outside the church in memory of the children who died.

“I think it's a gesture that's overdue,” Oesterreich said of the apology. “But at the end of the day, the most we can say about it is that it is a gesture.”

“It does raise a lot of questions about how they really plan to proceed.”

The CCCB pledged to fundraise across the country to support Indigenous initiatives, and referenced an upcoming meeting between Pope Francis, residential school survivors and other Indigenous knowledge keepers in December.

The bishops said that this meeting would be aimed at determining how the Pope "can support our common desire to renew relationships and walk together along the path of hope in the coming years."

Despite calls from Indigenous leaders and lawmakers alike, Pope Francis has not yet apologized for the Church’s role in residential schools.

Deer says the Pope has missed his chance to offer a sincere apology.

“The Pope should have apologized immediately upon hearing about the graves of the children, or else it is not sincere,” she said.

“I do not need his apology to heal,” she said. “I turned to my own Indigenous ceremonies of healing with our mother earth to heal what was done to me by the Catholic Church.” 

-- With files from CTV News's Ryan Flanagan and Anthony Vasquez-Peddie

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If you attended residential school, or have been affected by the residential school system, and need help, you can contact the 24-hour Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419

Additional mental-health support and resources for Indigenous people are available here

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