Warning: This article may be upsetting for some readers. If you are a residential school survivor, you are able to contact the 24-hour National Crisis Line at 1-866-925-4419 for support. Indigenous people can also access the Hope for Wellness Help Line at 1-855-242-3310 or online chat at www.hopeforwellness.ca.

Survivors of the Indian Residential School System from Wauzhushk Onigum say they wanted to see and hear a stronger commitment from Pope Francis during his apology to Canadians this week to support those undergoing their healing journey.

Pope Francis travelled to Edmonton, Quebec City and Iqaluit this week to apologize in person and begin a journey of reconciliation to and with Indigenous Canadians.

Wauzhushk Onigum Nation’s Kaatagoging Survivors Group, volunteers working to uncover the truth, locate unmarked graves, establish a pathway to healing and memorialize students who were lost through the Indian Residential School System, say they’re disappointed with the Papal visit, stating ‘words without concrete actions behind them are meaningless.’

“Our survivors need to be supported. It is a sacred journey they are undertaking,” said Wauzhushk Onigum Nation Chief, Chris Skead. “We urge all levels of government and all orders of the church and its representatives to step up and do what is right. Go beyond the apology, well beyond the apology.”

The group adds this week’s Papal visit has been poorly managed and executed with ambiguous timelines and announcements of support, and the Pope still hasn’t rescinded the Doctrine of Discovery.

The Doctrine of Discovery was an international law and papal document used in colonization. It gave license to explorers to claim vacant land in the name of their sovereign country, and land was considered vacant if it was not already populated by Christians.

Kaatagoging members note they were also hoping the church would provide support for survivors, their families and communities to bring about healing and the revitalization of their culture, language and spirituality.

“An apology right now is not relevant to us; we’re looking for action,” said Eleanor Skead, a Survivor of St. Mary’s Indian Residential School and a facilitator for the Kaatagoging Survivors Group.

Pope Francis first apologized for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in residential schools on April 1. The Roman Catholic Church was responsible for running roughly 60 per cent of Canada’s 139 residential schools for over 140 years.

Indigenous leaders had been calling for an apology from the church for decades. A Papal apology is one of the 94 recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Final Report of 2015.

The tragic and painful legacy of Canada’s residential school system stripped roughly 150,000 Indigenous children from their homes and cultures.

Records show that at least 38,000 children faced physical and sexual abuse during their time in the residential school system, and through the end of 2021, at least 4,127 children never made it home. That number is expected to grow after Ottawa provided additional documentation in early 2022.

One of those schools is the former St. Mary’s Indian Residential School in Wauzhushk Ongium. An official search of the site undertaken by community members began in May, 2022, and results are still being compiled.

Originally opening back in 1897, the Rat Portage Boarding School eventually became St. Mary’s Indian Residential School in 1938 and was operated by the Roman Catholic Church near the current Golden Eagle Entertainment Facility site until it closed down in 1972.

The Kaatagoging Project says over 6,100 children attended the school between sixteen Treaty #3 communities, seven in Manitoba and ten eastern communities during its 75 years of operation.

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, based out of Winnipeg, says records show that at least 36 students passed away while the school was in operation. But based on conversations with survivors, that number is believed to be much higher.

Documents from the National Residential School Survivor’s Society detailing the history of the facility show that staff performed nutritional experiments with illegal flour on children in their care between 1942 and 1952, many were denied dental treatments, students suffered a smallpox outbreak in 1913 and a fire destroyed a dormitory building in 1938.

Two 12-year-olds were found deceased after running away from St. Mary's in 1970. They were Phillip ‘Bean’ Swain and Roderick Taypaywaykejick. The two had planned to walk home to Grassy Narrows First Nation.

The federal government announced a nearly $2.5 million investment over three years to carry out work to identify potential burial sites in Wauzhushk Onigum in August 2021, with Ontario committing $400,000 over two years between 2023 and 2024.

To support the community’s work, the Ontario government has invested over $500,000 in mental health funding, while Indigenous Services Canada is providing $70,000 to enhance community-based, cultural programming.

In memory of St. Mary’s students:

Albert Joseph-Henry
Ambrose Skead
Amos Blackhawk
Antoinette Tap-Pee
Bernadette Strong
Cathline Thomas
Charlie Mechangabo
David Redsky
Elise Indian
Elizabeth Thomas
Jim Flim
John Jack
Joseph Blackhawk
Joseph Netawegabo
Joseph Thomas
Josephine Seymour
Josephine Shebawkwan
Joyce Bluebird
Louis Strong
Mabel Skeid
Margaret Peetawekijick
Mary Strong
Marie Therese Bob
Martha G Sukedjeweskang
Michael Charley Macheegabow
Nancy Keewatin
Norman Robinson
Peter Kapkagesik
Phillip Swain
Robert Thompson
Roderick Keesick
Rosaline Bird
Sarah Jack
Thos Wawanapetungs
Victoria Kelly
William Kennedy

Photos from St. Mary’s Residential School can be found through Algoma University HERE.