Archbishop Donald Bolen of Regina, Saskatchewan, is pictured with Ted Quewezance, former chief of Keeseekoose First Nation and a residential school survivor, near the Vatican in Rome March 30, 2022. Canadian Indigenous delegations are in Rome for meetings with Pope Francis. CNS photo/Cindy Wooden

Indigenous want truth about past, partnership for future

  • March 31, 2022

VATICAN CITY -- Ted Quewezance came to the Vatican looking for closure.

The former chief of the Keeseekoose First Nation and former executive director of the National Residential School Survivors Society said he joined the delegates hoping for an apology from Pope Francis and as part of the process "to bring closure to the pain and sorrow that each of us experienced."

Quewezance was one of the first survivors in Canada to speak publicly about having been sexually abused at a church-run residential school near his home in Saskatchewan.

"When I was taken away from my grandparents," he said, pausing to recompose himself, "it's long ago, but it hurts. One thing I'll never forget, never, will never forget is the pain that we experienced. The sexual abuse, physical abuse and the trauma that we experienced."

He also hopes for an acknowledgement by the pope that members of the First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities, including those who continue to treasure their cultural and spiritual traditions, "are human beings. We are not atheists. We are not evil. We are human beings."

Pope Francis met with members of the Assembly of First Nations today, following on his March 28 audiences with Métis and Inuit delegates.

Wearing an orange shirt to honour the Indigenous children who were taken from their families and sent to the schools, Quewezance also wears an orange beaded necklace featuring a photo of his six-month-old great-granddaughter, Ella. He was hoping the Pope would bless it.

Quewezance now does a private podcast to help his grandchildren learn their language and the Keeseekoose ceremonies.

"In my journey, I was a very angry man, very angry," he said. "I was mean because I was angry, but I took it upon myself to get to understand forgiveness," especially the need to forgive himself first and ask the forgiveness of his wife, children and grandchildren.

The survivors who traveled to Rome and the leaders of their communities spoke repeatedly of the "intergenerational trauma" caused by the schools with the abused pupils going on to mistreat their own family members or falling prey to addiction.

"Within my family in the last 10 years, we lost 19 of our relatives — sisters, nieces, nephews — through suicide, overdoses, opioids. Nineteen we lost, and that's painful," Quewezance said.

All the delegations in Rome asked Pope Francis for help securing records from Catholic dioceses and religious orders regarding the schools, not only to fill out the history of the schools, but also to identify the people in the unmarked graves.

The delegates also want a commitment from the pope and Canadian bishops to moving forward together on a path determined by the survivors and elders.

"It's about truth telling, you know; breaches have been made, but how do we fix them?" Quewezance said. "We could carry on and fight for the next 100 years, is it going to solve anything?"

His dream is that Ella, and all the Indigenous children in Canada, "will grow up to have peace, to have her culture, to have her traditions."

"Every child matters, whether they be First Nations, Inuit, Métis, Italians, Ukrainians, Russians," he said. "That's what it's about: peace and loving one another."

Regina Archbishop Donald Bolen, who has been working with Quewezance, said he began hearing the stories of the residential school survivors 10 years ago as part of the truth and reconciliation process in Saskatchewan.

"For me, I think it was the start of the fracturing of a narrative that we had of what Canada was about and what the Church did when it came to that land," as well as the Church's relationship with the Indigenous peoples, its missionary activity and the role of the schools, he said. "There was a certain narrative embedded that was being torn apart and torn apart for the Church, torn apart for the nation. And so, the voice of survivors became kind of a line to a different kind of truth.

"The church is a communion, horizontally and vertically," the archbishop said. "So, we're connected to the people that went before us, and where there was caused great pain and suffering, we are connected to that and so apologizing is appropriate."

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