Victoria McIntosh unfurls a little girl’s white winter coat from her handbag and smooths it out on the table.
Her grandmother sewed it for her when she was four years old, she says, before she was sent to Fort Alexander residential school in the 1960s. But a nun took the coat from her, she remembers.
“That nun took it off of me and threw it at my mom,” she told CNN. Then the nun called her mother a ‘savage” – an incident she said foreshadowed years of abuse.
McIntosh was sexually assaulted by a priest at that school for years, she says. “He violated me in ways that no child should ever go through. And I would break down and I would cry. Thinking about it, what he’d done. And I wonder why. What did I do to you?”
She has identified the priest as the now-retired 92-year-old Arthur Masse, who spent more than a decade at residential schools in Manitoba. Masse was charged in June with indecent assault and has not yet entered a plea.
McIntosh’s mother never forgave herself for what her daughter went through. “I told her it’s not your fault, what choice did you have,” she says.
But McIntosh feels no such forgiveness towards the Catholic Church, despite efforts to atone at the highest levels.
Pope Francis himself arrived in Canada this week with a singular purpose — to apologize on Canadian soil directly and personally to indigenous peoples for the Catholic Church’s role in the government funded residential school system.
In particular, the trip – which the Pope himself has called penance – recognizes the damage done to indigenous children who were taken from their families, banned from using their language, forced to abandon their culture and in many cases abused physically, sexually, and emotionally.
“Kneel down the way you made us. Kneel down as little kids and ask for that forgiveness,” McIntosh said of the Pope.
At least 150,000 Indigenous children were impacted across the country, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in September 2021, when Canada observed its first national holiday honoring victims and survivors.
A dark history
For more than a century, beginning in 1831, indigenous children in Canada were separated from their families and forced by the government to attend residential institutions run by Christian churches.
Until the last one shut in 1998, roughly three quarters of those schools fell under the Catholic Church’s administration.
In 2015, a report by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission detailed decades of physical, sexual and emotional abuse suffered by children in government and church-run institutions.
More than 4,000 children died while at residential schools over a period of several decades, it estimated. In June 2021, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc community discovered the remains of 215 children who attended the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, sending shockwaves across the country.
Children as young as three were buried on the grounds of the formerly Catholic Church-run school – once one of the largest in Canada.
The Pope’s visit comes as dozens of indigenous communities across Canada search the grounds of former residential institutions looking for unmarked graves.
Sagkeeng First Nation in southeastern Manitoba is actively surveying their land, with searches underway on the site of the former Fort Alexander Residential School.
On the grounds of Fort Alexander, a drone operator flies a leading-edge commercial drone armed with ground-penetrating radar technology – part of a team carrying out a grisly operation to search deep below the earth for the bodies of missing Indigenous children.
Canadian drone company AltoMaxx was hired by the Sakeeng to survey the land, and has expanded its search to several sites based on information gathered from survivors and elders.
The searches have so far found 190 anomalies in the ground which could indicate the presence of human remains, says First Nation Chief Derrick Henderson.
It is a painstaking, heart-breaking process – but one that is essential for coming to terms with the intergenerational trauma entrenched in the Indigenous community, he says.
“At least there’ll be some relief and some comfort, right, that we know we have to do what we have to do to bring those children, take them home. Right. And do the proper thing for the families. I think that’s the most important thing,” Henderson told CNN.
The process is finally reinforcing the accounts of the community’s elders, who have been saying for decades that there are thousands of unaccounted for children who disappeared while attending residential school. Until recently, those stories have fallen on deaf ears.
“The truths are coming out now. So people will really believe what our people went through when they attended the residential school. So I think that was the biggest thing because people really didn’t understand or they didn’t believe. So now, now that this is coming out, people will start to realize this actually happened,” says Henderson.
The reservation plans to repatriate remains that are found to their home communities for proper burial. At least 31 communities from across Canada were forced to send children to Fort Alexander from 1905 until it closed in 1970.
Refusing to forgive
“I ask forgiveness, in particular, for the ways in which many members of the Church and of religious communities cooperated, not least through their indifference, in projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation promoted by the governments of that time, which culminated in the system of residential schools,” the Pope said on Monday.
But while his trip was made at the request of Indigenous leaders, the pontiff’s apology will most likely be met with indifference and ambivalence by many, says Joe Daniels, another survivor of Fort Alexander, as he walks the grounds of his old school.
“Someone had to go to Rome to go and practically beg this guy to come here and apologize, why couldn’t he have done it on his own from here?” says Daniels, gesturing to his heart.
Daniels recognizes that some in his community have been waiting for an apology for years. After decades of refusing to admit responsibility, the Catholic Church officially apologized to Canadian Indigenous leaders who traveled to the Vatican in April.
Another residential school survivor, 80-year-old Henry Boubard, says it is too late to make amends.
“You took away my education, you took away my life, you took away my marriage, you took away my identity, you took away everything I wanted to be. Now it’s nothing, and you say I’m sorry,” he says of the Pope’s apology, shaking his head.
Boubard says he was taken from his grandparents’ home at the age of seven. He lived in constant fear during the nine years he spent at Fort Alexander, he says, and suffered emotional, physical and sexual abuse that ultimately erased his sense of identity.
“After what the priest did to me sexually, it changed everything,” Boubard said. He says he started to hate himself as he grew up, and attributes his battle with alcoholism and struggle to properly love his wife and two children to the trauma he suffered.
“I felt dirty inside here, from what that priest did to me. Even later on when I was growing up I just, I don’t know it seemed like I just lost my mind, to be a person, a human being. I lost that, it seems like, who I was. What I was.”
Boubard says he was not allowed to visit his family home. Once, he ran away and managed to reach his grandmother’s house. The following day, a policeman and a priest arrived at the door to take him back.
“I didn’t want to let them know I was crying, so I was crying inside, really crying, weeping because I didn’t want to go back. I went back and it started over again, all over again.”
At the same school, siblings grew up to be adult strangers after being isolated from each other and banned from communicating.
“We didn’t have that bond of brother and sister,” Patrick Bruyere, 75, says of his sister Sarah Mazerolle, 76, despite their closeness in age. Now neighbors, both say they were abused at Fort Alexander.
“You had to survive if you were going to live. You had to find ways to get over everything that was being done to you,” recounts Mazerolle. Neither of them plan to watch any of the events the Pope will be taking part in during his visit – especially not the apology – they told CNN.
“I think they want to forget what they did. Same as us trying to forget what they did to us. I think it makes them feel better,” Mazerolle said.
Not just the Catholic Church
Teams investigating former residential schools that were run by other denominations have also been pushing ahead in the search for answers.
In the southwest of Manitoba, the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation (SVDN) has teamed up with researchers from Simon Fraser University, the University of Windsor, and Brandon University to conduct searches around the site of the former Brandon residential school which was run first by the Methodist Church, then by the United Church. Both churches have publicly recognized their roles in the administration of residential schools.
In the 1940s and 1950s, under the management of the United Church, a number of students attempted to run away, complaining of harsh discipline and poor food, according to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR).
Lorraine Pompana was just six years old when she was taken to Brandon, she told CNN.
“I can vividly remember the day we were picked up from the reservation,” she said. “I remember crying and screaming and I was holding onto my dad’s legs, not wanting to go. But they wrenched me from his arms.”
Upon arriving at the school, Pompana says she and the other children were stripped of their clothes, made to shower, had their hair cut, and made to wear clothes with numbers on them.
“We were given this number and that’s what we were identified as, a number…when they called you, they called your number,” she said.
Students only went to school for half the day, Pompana. The rest of the day was spent cleaning areas including the staff dining room after the staff ate, and working in the kitchen, she said.
The children were given corporal punishment and never had enough to eat, she said. They were also forbidden from speaking their native language.
“To this day I cannot speak my language because of being scared – when I remember how we were treated when we spoke our language. If we cried, if we spoke our language, we got slapped on the hand or got our nose pulled, our ears pulled,” Pompana said.
One day, a friend at the school disappeared, she said.
“I don’t know what happened. We asked about her, but they didn’t tell us. I still wonder to this day, what did happen to her?”
In June 2021, the Chief of Sioux Valley Dakota Nation Jennifer Bone announced that 104 potential graves had been found at the school.
Investigators say that 99 names of those who died in association with the Brandon residential school and are possibly buried in known cemeteries have been identified.
One of the researchers is Eldon Yellowhorn, a professor of Indigenous Studies at Simon Fraser University, on the Peigan Indian Reserve, and whose mother was a residential school survivor.
Yellowhorn told CNN that researchers look through national archives, church records, coroners’ records and police records when trying to identify buried bodies.
Whether to exhume gravesites for DNA samples to match with living individuals is a complicated question. Culturally, some communities say remains should be left where they are buried.
“We have to negotiate with the survivors and families and communities,” Yellowhorn says. SVDN is among the communities that have not conducted exhumations.
“People are finally getting answers, in some cases where their relatives are buried. Because oftentimes when people died at these schools their parents might have just gotten a note that ‘your child has died’ but no other information about how they died or where they were buried,” he explained.
Challenges in the search
Four different areas have been surveyed so far and two school cemeteries have been identified, and two additional areas with potential unmarked graves have also been identified, according to Katherine Nichols, whose research launched investigations into the unmarked graves associated with the Brandon residential school site.
In June, the Manitoba provincial government allocated $1.94 million USD to indigenous governments and organizations for the identification, commemoration and protection of burial sites of children who attended residential schools.
Elder councils and survivors are key in the investigation, giving researchers and scientists guidance on how to proceed and where to search. They have helped provide more information on identifying those potentially buried at a certain site and helping establish connections with living family members, as researchers use archival records to determine who attended the school and who was recorded to have gone missing.
“I think it’s always been a priority for us to ensure that this process is indigenous led and that’s what we have always communicated – that it is important to involve the elders just to ensure that we’re following the cultural protocols and taking their direction as knowledge keepers for our community,” Bone told CNN.
Pompana along with other residential school survivors is part of a team that works on gathering the names of children who attended Brandon. Some of those names, Pompana says, she recognizes as former classmates.
“I find that sometimes when I meet other survivors I feel the need to confirm that it really did happen because as a young child, a lot of things happened that I had suppressed in my mind. But there are times when they came out and I needed to make sure I talked to others about it,” she said.
Ceremony and commemoration, she says, have also been healing for her – evidence of how important it is for the Canadian government as well as Church authorities to acknowledge and atone for the pain of thousands of Indigenous children and its generational impact.
“I find that there is a lot of support now, in mainstream society,” Pompana says. “They are finally recognizing that this happened to us and they’re willing to help us in many ways.”
If you have been affected by this story, the following telephone lines are available 24 hours a day for emotional and counselling support and crisis referral in Canada:
National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) Residential School Crisis Line: 1 866 925 4419
Indian Residential School Survivors Society (IRSSS) Emergency Crisis Line: 1 800 721 0066