Phyllis Googoo is among the 13 Indigenous delegates who will share her story of residential schools with Pope Francis next month. Photo courtesy Phyllis Googoo

Survivor has her story to tell Pope Francis

By 
  • February 20, 2022

Phyllis Googoo is ready to share her story with Pope Francis. She’s been wrestling with her memories of Shubenacadie Indian Residential School for more than 60 years.

“We get better, us survivors,” she told The Catholic Register. “Among the AFN (Assembly of First Nations), we meet once in a while. Our stories are so sad. When we first met, it was mostly crying. It was hard.”

Googoo will have her chance to speak with Pope Francis March 31 as one of 13 First Nations delegates going to Rome. The Metis delegation will meet with Pope Francis March 28 and the Inuit later that same day. All the delegations together will have an audience with Pope Francis April 1. Each of the four meetings is scheduled for one hour.

Googoo knows she will have only five-to-10 minutes to speak her piece. She wants to be sure to leave space for other delegates who have their own stories from residential schools spread across the country.

There is no one more able to speak for residential school survivors than Googoo, said Dr. Don Julien, executive director of the Confederacy of Mainland Mi’kmaq.

“Phyllis has dedicated her life to her people,” Julien said in an email. “Her experience as a survivor and her love, support and strength for other survivors has been paramount for advancing healing and reconciliation at a national level.”

Googoo attended the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School in Nova Scotia from the ages of four to 14. It was the beginning of a long and painful separation from her mother.

“I know and I witnessed a lot of severe forms of abuse,” Googoo said.

She has a vivid memory of looking across the refectory one day to see her older brother. She saw instead a swollen, bruised face she could hardly recognize.

“I couldn’t recognize him. His face was swolled up. I couldn’t believe it was him,” said Googoo.

One of the priests in charge of discipline had caught a few of the boys wrestling. The former boxer thought he had the perfect way to teach a 15-year-old boy a lesson.

“He disciplined the boys in the ring and he beat them up that way. It’s awful you know,” Googoo said.

She remembers hearing about another priest on staff.

“I remember us warning one another not to be alone with him or something —  you know, the older girls,” said Googoo.

Like Indigenous children across the country, Googoo faced the strap if she got caught speaking her own language. She would sneak off and meet her brother behind the refectory anyway. When she first arrived at the school as a lonely little child, she would speak Mi’kmawi’simk to lady bugs she found out in the school yard. Unlike many, she kept alive an ember of her mother tongue through her decade at residential school. Today she teaches the language to young people.

In 1992 Halifax Archbishop Austin Burke apologized for the suffering children endured at the Shubenacadie school.

She reached Grade 8 at Shubenacadie, which put her in the elite of the school’s students. The final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada found that nine of 110 students attending Shubenacadie reached Grade 8 in 1964. Only two per cent went on to high school. As soon as she left the school, Googoo realized she had received a second-rate education.

“I had a hard time catching up. I found that I was way behind on history,” she said. “I was good at math all the time, anyway. There were lots of writing skills that I didn’t have.”

She began her high school education with Les Filles de Jésus at Our Lady of the Assumption Convent in the village of Arichat, a Francophone Acadian community on the south end of Cape Breton Island. But there was an ache in Googoo’s heart. She missed her mother.

“So one night we took off after supper and started hitchhiking. I was hoping to find my mother,” she recalled.

It was her and Sandra Polchis, young teens heading for Maine where Polchis had family. A truck driver picked the girls up, bought them hot chocolate and called the cops.

“The first thing I knew, I looked around and there was some Mounties all around us,” she said. “I was glad they got us, in a way. I didn’t know where I was going and I was getting scared by then.”

Googoo arrived back at the convent ready to fight.

“Sister Superior there welcomed us back with open arms. She was so understanding. She said, ‘I’m glad nothing happened to you guys.’ I said, ‘Are you going to hit us? Punish us?’ and I hollered at her,” said Googoo. “She said, ‘No dear.’ She let us sleep in next day and brought breakfast to us. There was so much difference.”

This was a new experience of authority and a new experience of the Church.

“All the nuns are like that to me. That’s when I started realizing other things, you know,” she said.

She went on to teachers’ college in Truro, Nova Scotia, and is still teaching at 77 as an elder in residence at We’koqma’q School. But for many, long years she didn’t speak about her experience at Shubenacadie Indian Residential School, even to her children.

Eventually, as awareness of the legacy of the residential school system grew through the 1990s and early 2000s, it was her children and grandchildren who forced the issue.

“They said, ‘Mom, you’re a survivor. You were there,’ ” Googoo said.

Come last summer and the discovery of unmarked graves at the Kamloops Indian Residential School, that reality hit even harder.

“I cried that morning when I turned on the TV,” she recalled.

Staying in the Church has not been easy, but for a Mi’kmaq, whose people have been with the Church since Grand Chief Membertou accepted baptism in 1610, leaving the Church isn’t easy either.

“Most of our teachings, the spirituality is sort of like Catholicism. I find we have the sweetgrass and in church we have the incense,” she said. “I don’t want my children to move away from it and not to believe.”

But Googoo knows her grandchildren’s generation is not like hers.

“They are outspoken, whereas when we were their age we were people that felt really low of ourselves. We had low self-esteem and we didn’t come up with questions, like our children now come up with. They’re coming to their own generation and they know themselves better. They know where they want to go, whereas we were broken people,” she said.

The Church will always be part of Mi’kmaq history, but real engagement waits on reconciliation.

“I think we need the Pope to take responsibility and help us through that,” she said.

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