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MPP: Pope offers ‘feel good words from a colonial institution’

Kiiwetinoong MPP Sol Mamakwa attended the Pope’s apology ceremony and said while he found the words lacking, others didn’t, and he hoped it would be a catalyst for healing
At his visit to Ermineskin Cree Nation in Maskwecis, Alta., Honourary Chief Wilton Littlechild gifted a headdress to Pope Francis on July 25. (Prime Minister's Office)

On July 25, Kiiwetinoong MPP Sol Mamakwa sat beside NDP leader Jagmeet Singh at the grounds of the former Ermineskin Indian Residential School in the community of Maskwacis, Alta., listening to the words of the Pope as he addressed the “deplorable evil” that was visited upon the First Nation, Métis and Inuit people in residential schools. 

Mamakwa told after the event that many there listening needed to hear those words, but to him, they were somewhat empty. 

“Good colonial institutions talk like that,” he said. “Feel good language.” 

But he also saw the effect the Pope’s words had on the crowd, on the people who did need to hear an apology.

“When he asked for forgiveness, it was so heavy. I could feel the emotions from people that were around us, I could see people holding each other, I could see people crying together, that's what they needed to hear to start their healing journey.” 

The Pope is visiting Canada as part of his “penitential pilgrimage” as he called it. After his Monday appearance in Maskwacis, the Pope departed for Quebec City on July 27, where he will meet Gov. Gen. Mary Simon and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the Citadelle of Quebec. 

He will also hold mass at the National Shrine of Saint Anne de Beaupré the following day before meeting with a Quebec Indigenous delegation. He’ll then be flying to Iqaluit on July 29, where he will meet privately with Indigenous residential school survivors before attending a public community event hosted by Inuit leaders. 

At his appearance in Maskwacis, the Pope expressed his “sorrow, indignation and shame.” He also offered an apology to the children who attended the schools. 

“I am deeply sorry,” said the Pope, “I am sorry, and I ask forgiveness.” 

“We've heard that over and over as Indigenous people, governments will do that, institutions will do that — acknowledging the oppression, but not the colonial policies that continue to be in place,” Mamakwa told “He talked about some of the abuses, and but he never acknowledged the sexual abuse. He did not apologize on behalf of the whole Catholic church, he never talked about the Doctrine of Discovery.”

Mamakwa travelled to the event in order to pass along a birch bark scroll, signed by residential school survivors, including himself, asking for the repeal of the so-called Doctrine of Discovery. 

The Doctrine of Discovery comes from a series of Papal Bulls (formal statements from the Pope) and extensions, originating in the 1400s. It made it legal for explorers to claim lands for their monarchs who felt they could exploit the resources of the land, regardless of the original inhabitants.

Though he said the event was too strictly planned for him to have a meeting with the Pope, and the event featured heavily armed security, drones and helicopters, he passed the scroll along to Indigenous leaders to pass along. 

“There's a great number of Indigenous people across the country that were expecting some type of repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery, but it never happened.”

Mamakwa said that shows him the true heart of the church. 

“That's where they're at,” he said. “I mean, he talked about serious investigations into what the churches did to the students, but we already did that, and then nothing happened.” 

He said there is also the question of records regarding the schools that the church still holds, as well as the “sacred items” that are still held and often displayed by the church. 

Mamakwa does say he thinks the overall message will be a catalyst for healing, but notes that there was a lack of real action put forth. 

It was a message echoed by Indigneous lawyer and former senator, Murray Sinclair. Sinclair is Anishnawbe from Peguis First Nation and chairman of the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission from 2009 to 2015. Sinclair stated that “for the children and descendants of survivors, it is not enough that you have stopped abusing them, you must act to help them recover, as well as commit to never doing this again.”

There were also several emotional moments during the event, said Mamakwa, and not all of them planned. After the gift of a headdress to the pope, an honour reserved only for those who earn each eagle feather that makes up the crown, Mamakwa said a woman, later identified as Si Pih Ko, immediately stood as the headdress was placed on the Pope’s head, and began a grief-stricken and emotional singing of what many thought was the national anthem, but was (according to reporting by Global News) actually “Our Village” (Ka ka na Tak) sung in an older dialect of the language of the Four Winds. When she finished, she began speaking directly to Pope Francis.

“‘You are hereby served lawful notice,” she spoke in Cree, fighting through tears. “We the daughters of the Great Spirit and our tribal sovereign of Turtle Island members cannot be forced into law or treaty that is not the Great law. We have appointed chiefs on our territories, govern yourselves accordingly.” Many have said she also told the pope to take the headdress off, while another man nearby yelled (as can be heard on recordings of the event) “You’re a snake, you’re a snake.” It was unclear if he was speaking to the Pope or those who gave the gift. 

Mamakwa said he was sitting somewhat near her, and could make out a few words of her song and speech, as his first language is Oji-Cree; but more than anything, he said he felt her anguish.

He, too, was shocked by the gift of the headdress, offered to the Pope by Wilton Littlechild, honorary chief of Ermineskin First Nation, but couldn’t comment on the appropriateness of the gift. Mamakwa is Woodland Cree and therefore not as well-versed in the the traditions of Ermineskin Cree Nation.

Mamakwa also said he was shocked by the newly paved roads in a community that did not have them before the announcement of the Pope’s arrival. The federal government is spending more than $35 million for the papal visit, including community-led activities and ceremonies, and to assist with travel costs for survivors, as well as support for Indigenous communities in the three regions that the Pope is visiting. Some $2 million is being spent to interpret the events and comments from Pope Francis into Indigenous languages.

The Alberta government is also spending up to $20 million — with much of the funding money going to road and infrastructure improvements, like new paving — in Lac Ste. Anne and Maskwacis.

“I saw the paved roads. I saw the walkways, and you just shake your head,” said Mamakwa.  “That's how oppression works, that's how racism works. That's how these colonial oppressive institutions work. I was happy for the community, but also, it's got oppression, colonialism and  racism, written all over it.”

Though Mamakwa is still hopeful that this is a first step, he said it is just that, a first step. 

“We cannot continue to accept trauma as a way of life for Indigenous people,” said Mamakwa. “We cannot continue to see colonialism and we cannot continue to see oppression as a way of life for Indigenous people in this country. The people that enacted the Doctrine of Discovery have never treated us as human beings.”

The Pope will continue his tour this week and leaves for the Vatican on July 29.  

The Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program has a hotline to help residential school survivors and their relatives suffering trauma invoked by the recall of past abuse. The number is 1-866-925-4419.

Jenny Lamothe is a reporter with She covers the diverse communities of Sudbury, especially the vulnerable or marginalized, including the Black, Indigenous, newcomer and Francophone communities, as well as 2SLGBTQ+ and issues of the downtown core.



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Jenny Lamothe

About the Author: Jenny Lamothe

Jenny Lamothe is a reporter with She covers the diverse communities of Sudbury, especially the vulnerable or marginalized.
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