Saturday Jun 25, 2022

‘Time has come’ for Pope to apologize over residential schools, says Phil Fontaine

'Time has come' for Pope to apologize over residential schools, says Phil Fontaine


WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.

When Phil Fontaine spoke decades ago about the sexual and physical abuse he suffered at Manitoba residential schools, he risked shame and shocked Canadians.

Fontaine, an Ojibway and former chief of the Sagkeeng First Nation, was one of the first Indigenous leaders to speak to the public about the physical and psychological abuse at Canada’s residential schools, during a ground-breaking 1990 interview with CBC’s Barbara Frum.

Now, 32 years later, the former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations is part of a 30-member delegation that will be at the Vatican starting on Monday to talk about the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the horrors that played out in Canadian residential schools.

Fontaine said the “time has come” for a full apology from the pontiff.

“It’s an important opportunity, in my view, for the country to finally get this right. And to get it right means a full apology from Pope Francis,” Fontaine told CBC’s Piya Chattopadhyay of The Sunday Magazine.

Pope Francis waves in December 2021, after delivering his traditional Christmas Day speech from the main balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The pontiff will be meeting a Canadian delegation to discuss residential schools next week. (Yara Nardi/Reuters)

He and other delegates will meet Pope Francis and talk to him about the legacy of pain that residential schools left behind.

Fontaine said he wants to see the Pope apologize in person in Canada someday.

He thinks the discovery of unmarked graves, believed to be of missing children, on residential school grounds over the past year will add pressure for the Pope to fully address the shameful history.

“It’s been percolating and it’s now getting to the top, and there’s no getting away from it,” Fontaine said. “It has to be dealt with.”

Past requests for an apology

Back in the spring of 2009, Fontaine travelled to Rome with a delegation from the Assembly of First Nations.

There he met the previous pontiff, Pope Benedict XVI, who expressed “sorrow” over the “deplorable” treatment that Indigenous students suffered in government-funded, Roman Catholic-run residential schools.

But Benedict did not apologize.

A group of female students and a nun pose in a classroom at Cross Lake Indian Residential School in Cross Lake, Man., in a photo from February 1940. It’s estimated that more than 150,000 children attended residential schools in Canada from the 1830s until the last school closed in 1997. (Dept. of Indian and Northern Affairs/Library and Archives Canada/Reuters)

“It would have been a great accomplishment if we had convinced Benedict XVI to apologize,” Fontaine said.

“But I didn’t want to leave the Vatican expressing public displeasure or being publicly despondent with the response. I wanted people to feel that they had been heard. I didn’t want people to see it as a major failure.”

Fontaine said he sees Pope Francis as a reformist, and he believes the church is more open than in the past.

“The time has come,” he said.

Judy Sackaney and her grandson, Creedence, 10, stand in front of an honour staff with tobacco ties at the Centennial Flame in Ottawa in June 2021, after participating in a pipe ceremony to honour the 215 children whose remains were believed to have been found on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Fontaine plans to be at the Vatican in Rome on Monday with representatives of the Métis National Council, the Assembly of First Nations and the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. The delegation is planning a four-part presentation for Pope Francis between Monday and April 1.

He said the delegation won’t be pressing for an immediate apology in Rome, since the preference is for the Pope to travel to Canada to offer the apology on “our land.”

Meeting Pope Francis

In October, Pope Francis agreed to visit Canada “on a pilgrimage of healing and reconciliation.”

But advocates called for the $50-million to $100-million cost of a papal visit to be used as restitution for residential school survivors instead.

“The Vatican is rich. They owe us for what they did,” Madeleine Whitehawk, a residential school survivor from Cote First Nation in Saskatchewan, said in November.

Pope Francis celebrates mass to mark 500 years of Christianity in the Philippines, in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome on March 14, 2021. He was scheduled to meet Indigenous delegates from Canada at the Vatican in December, but the meeting was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Tiziana Fabi/The Associated Press)

Pope Francis was scheduled to meet Indigenous delegates at the Vatican in December, but the meeting was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Regina Archbishop Don Bolen, who was appointed by Pope Francis in 2016, said while he supports the call for an apology, he acknowledges there have been divergent views within the church.

“I think the principal thing that needs to happen is that the Indigenous delegates … have an opportunity to speak their heart to Pope Francis, and he has the opportunity to listen and truly hear them,” Bolen said.

He said Pope Francis is committed to “working with people who have been persecuted, who have suffered a great deal.”

Regina Archbishop Don Bolen, who was appointed by Pope Francis in 2016, says while he supports the call for an apology, he acknowledges there have been divergent views within the church. (Radio-Canada/CBC)

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops has pledged to raise $30 million for an Indigenous Reconciliation Fund to help make reparations.

Fontaine said he believes the Roman Catholic Church’s historical response to what happened at residential schools has cost it members.

“Churches are empty, and our people have moved away from the church in significant numbers because they’ve been very disappointed with the response and reaction of the Catholic Church,” he said.

The demands of Indigenous people won’t end in Rome or with an apology, Fontaine added.

A new landscape

The Vatican meeting comes in the wake of the disturbing discovery of unmarked burial sites on residential school land last spring. News broke in May 2021 that more than 200 burial sites were revealed after ground-penetrating radar was used to survey the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia.

The discovery was only the first of many at other former residential school sites in Canada.

Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir described finding the burial site as a “heavy truth.”

Ground-penetrating radar used on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia indicated that the remains of 215 children could be buried at the site. Last year’s discovery was only the first of many at other former residential school sites in Canada. (Andrew Snucins/The Canadian Press)

By late 2021, there were searches of at least nine locations revealing 1,300 potential unmarked burial sites.

Fontaine said that like many Canadians, he was surprised by the discoveries.

“It was as big a shock to me that this situation existed in so many parts of the country where we had residential schools,” he said, adding that the challenge now is how to deal with such discoveries.

Fontaine said he believes it’s important to know the names of any of the children who are buried and determine which communities they came from.

As a member of the Sagkeeng First Nation, he said the community knew of some children who ran away from residential schools and ended up perishing.

“These situations weren’t a big secret that only revealed itself 50 or 100 years later, as we’ve seen in other parts of the country.”

How many lost?

Determining the exact number of children who died in residential schools is problematic.

It’s estimated that more than 150,000 children attended residential schools in Canada from the 1830s until the last school closed in 1997.

Ground-penetrating radar searches are in progress or under consultation at dozens of former residential school sites.

Raymond Frogner, head of archives for the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation in Winnipeg, which holds the records gathered by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said the centre has documented 4,118 children who died at residential schools.

But he told CBC that there are thousands of records left to review, so that number is expected to rise.

Children’s shoes and stuffed animals sit on the steps of the former Mohawk Institute Residential School in Brantford, Ont., as a tribute to missing children, in November 2021. (Cole Burston/AFP/Getty Images)

‘My experience was not unique’

Given the scope of what’s now known, Fontaine said, “I’m certain that people will not be satisfied until and unless something real emerges from the encounter with Pope Francis at the Vatican.”

The longtime Indigenous leader attended Fort Alexander Residential School, operated by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, at Sagkeeng and later the Assiniboia Residential School in Winnipeg.

The Fort Alexander Residential School closed in 1970. Fontaine attended the school, operated by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, at Sagkeeng First Nation, before attending the Assiniboia Residential School in Winnipeg. (George Harris Fonds/Archives of Manitoba)

In his interview with Barbara Frum in 1990, Fontaine discussed how children faced everything from corporal punishment to humiliation. He said some people who were abused later acted out what had been done to them as they grappled with “missing gaps and pieces in their being.”

At the time of that interview, Fontaine said that Canadians and Indigenous communities weren’t ready to hear such truth in a public forum.

But the recent discovery of unmarked graves at the schools has led the public to pay attention.

Fontaine said he didn’t even think the abuse he endured was remarkable, given how common it was among students.

Fontaine is shown in Toronto in December 2021. In a 1990 interview, he revealed the abuse that he and others suffered in residential school. He said he didn’t even think the abuse was remarkable, given how common it was among students. (Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press)

“My experience was not unique. There are many, many others just within the confines of our residential schools that have been abused, and the abuse took different forms. A lot of it was physical, some deprivation, separation from family and, yeah, it was troubling,” he said.

“So it wasn’t a happy time for me. I should have been enjoying my life as a child, or as a young boy, but it wasn’t to be so.”


Support is available for anyone affected by the lingering effects of residential school and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for residential school survivors and others affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.


Written by Yvette Brend. Produced by Sarah-Joyce Battersby and Andrea Hoang.

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