Pope Francis made a historic visit to Canada this summer to apologize on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church for harm caused to Indigenous people through the residential school system, marking a culmination of events first sparked by the discovery of 200 potential burial sites at the site of Kamloops Indian Residential School.
Thousands of Indigenous people, including many residential school survivors and their families, gathered to hear the Pope’s apology in Maskwacis, Alta., roughly 100 km south of Edmonton, at the former site of Ermineskin Residential School. Among them was Dennis Saddleman, who spent 11 years at the Catholic-run Kamloops residential school starting at the age of six in 1957—and nearly died within his first two weeks there.
“I could have been one of those children in the unmarked graves,” says Saddleman, a resident of the Coldwater Reserve near Merrit, B.C. Saddleman’s mother was Nlaka’pamux and father was Syilx; he grew up Catholic and in recent years has worshipped at an Anglican church. During his time at the school, Saddleman suffered and witnessed rampant physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.
He recounted how an oblate brother, a supervisor, told all the junior boys that they had to go swimming. Saddleman, who did not know how to swim, was lying on the grass and enjoying the sun when the supervisor grabbed him, took him to the swimming pool and threw him in.
“I remember the water there, all the white water and the bubbles and my arms were kicking, my legs were kicking, and I was trying to stay on top of the water,” he recalls. “Then I sank.”
An older boy jumped in and pulled him out of the pool.
“When I came to, he was pushing on my chest,” Saddleman continues. “Then when I opened my eyes there, he asked me, ‘Are you OK?’ and I shook my head yes. I didn’t remember the boy’s name there, and I never did see him again. I was thinking, ‘Gee, maybe he was an angel [who] jumped in after me.’”
Saddleman’s story is just one of those recorded at the Kamloops school. The final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC), available online at nctr.ca, documents many other cases of abuse.
Geraldine Bob, another survivor of the Kamloops residential school, described how staff members could not control their tempers once they began punishing a student. “They would just start beating you and lose control and hurl you against the wall, throw you on the floor, kick you, punch you,” Bob told the TRC.
Survivor Julianna Alexander recalls how she got a “good pounding and licking” on her second day at the Kamloops school for going to speak to her brother.
Principal Allan Noonan in the 1960s advocated punishing older buys who got into fights and did not apologize by forcing them to fight in boxing matches.
A former boys’ supervisor at the Kamloops school, Gerald Moran, was convicted of 12 counts of sexual abuse and received a three-year prison sentence in 2004. The charges related to boys assaulted in the 1950s and 1960s at both Kamloops and St. Mary’s Indian Residential School in Mission, B.C.
As documented by the TRC, students were often at risk of malnutrition, disease, and even death. Indian agent John Smith inspected the Kamloops school in 1918 and found a lack of nutritious food. A 1927 report on conditions said that poor construction had contributed to students developing “numerous infections, colds, bronchitis, and pneumonia during the past winter.” Kamloops student Christina Jacobs died in 1962 when an airplane piloted by a staff member crashed near the school. At least 50 other students died while attending the school, according to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.
Long before non-Indigenous Canadians became aware of thousands of ground radar readings that could be unmarked graves at the residential school sites, survivors had reason to believe that many Indigenous children were buried there.
“Even before the unmarked graves became public, some of the survivors there had stories that the priest or the supervisor would wake them up at night about midnight or later,” Saddleman says. “They wake them up there, then they follow the priest or the supervisor out and they were forced to dig a hole and bury the child. Whether it’s a boy or girl there, they were forced to bury them.”
Other survivors, he says, told stories of young girls being raped and pushed down stairs to induce a miscarriage, or an oblate pushing a girl to her death from a fire escape four stories off the ground.
“When some of the children there passed away or if they got murdered, [residential school officials] wouldn’t tell the parents,” Saddleman says. “Maybe they’d tell the parents that their child ran away or something. So a lot of the parents didn’t know what really happened to their child in the school when they passed away.”
Saddleman would eventually live to hear the Pope apologize for the abuse generations of Indigenous people endured in the residential schools. Yet the passage of time and effects of intergenerational trauma resulting from their abuse such as addictions, poverty and high suicide rates meant that countless other survivors would not live to see that day.
Retired Anglican bishop Barbara Andrews—who calls Saddleman “a very dear friend of mine”—also witnessed the Pope’s apology. The first Indigenous woman consecrated as a bishop in the Anglican Church of Canada, Andrews is a member of the Enoch Maskekosihk Cree Nation who was raised Roman Catholic and later became Anglican. She is also the child of a residential school survivor; Andrews’s father attended Ermineskin Residential School, as did her three brothers.
When she first heard the sites that Pope Francis planned to visit, Andrews felt called to be a witness. Lac St. Anne, the second site on the Pope’s visit and a historic pilgrimage site for Roman Catholics, is also where her father, mother, and brothers are buried.
“I began thinking about those in my own family who will never hear the apology,” Andrews says. “That was important for me, to be there to witness for those who had died unable to ever hear an apology—and to be a witness to those who I minister at home with, who just could not travel here to be present, so I take the story home to them.”
“I certainly do it for the next generation,” she adds. “I do it for my own healing journey as an intergenerational survivor. It seemed important that I hear those words.”
When Saddleman heard that the Pope was coming to visit Canada, his circle of elders in Coldwater expressed interest in going. However, he says, other residential school survivors, their friends and families said they didn’t care if the Pope came or not. Still more did not want to have anything to do with the Roman Catholic Church whatsoever.
“A lot of my friends … were expressing hate, anger. So I said, ‘OK… I’m going to go to Edmonton and I’m going to see what can come out of that.’”
While faith has remained an important part of Saddleman’s life despite the abuse he suffered during 11 years at the Kamloops school, those experiences have left him with a low opinion of the Roman Catholic Church. “I thought all these priests and nuns and the oblate brothers were supposed to be servants of God, and they were out raping the girls and sexually abusing the boys … I was sexually abused in a dormitory there by one of the supervisors,” he says.
“I felt like they really stuffed the religion down in my throat there… Eventually I became really angry and I hated the church,” he adds. Students had to pray before breakfast, before lunch, before supper, and again before bedtime. They attended two church services on Sundays and another on Wednesday.
At the school, clergy presented a skewed and vindictive selection of Catholic beliefs, which served to belittle and frighten Saddleman. “They were telling me that my mom and dad were drunks and they’re going to go to hell, all sinners will go to hell,” he says. “They’re talking about World War III … They were really trying to scare me.”
The trauma and abuse that he suffered at the school sent Saddleman into a downward spiral for many years afterward.
“I did a lot of drinking, a lot of drugs, lots of trying to shake off this church stuff and my sexual abuse and all my physical abuse and everything,” he says. “They were telling me I’m dumb and stupid and no good… It got really worse and worse and worse, and I drank and drank and drank, going into darkness and I stayed there for a long, long time. A lot of thoughts about suicide entered my mind.”
At one point, he stabbed himself in the ribs and placed a .30-30 Winchester rifle under his chin.
“Before I pulled the trigger, I thought about my sexual abuser… He might walk away laughing [saying] ‘Ha ha ha, Dennis Saddleman killed himself.’… Same with the residential school… That was the reason why I pulled the gun away from my chin. I didn’t want to die there—didn’t want to give the satisfaction to my sexual abuser or the residential school that they killed me.”
At the nadir of his alcoholism, Saddleman says, his hair was long and greasy, his clothes smelled like urine and vomit. He slept in back alleys beside the dumpsters he scrounged food from in order to save his money for alcohol. “I’d go down the street and people’d give me this disgusted look, [like I was] just a ‘drunken Indian’ walking down the sidewalk trying to bum some change for the next bottle.’”
Ultimately, Saddleman realized that he “didn’t want to die as an alcoholic” and in his late 20s quit drinking and drugs for good. Last May, he celebrated 42 years of sobriety.
He sought to upgrade his education and took courses that included English, where his teacher gave him high marks for a writing project on powwows and suggested he might become a writer. Saddleman took her message to heart and ended up taking writing classes at the En’owkin Centre in Penticton, B.C.
When he wrote one of his first poems and read it onstage, he received a standing ovation. Soon he began gaining recognition as a writer and poet and received invitations from communities across Canada to share his stories and poetry.
Saddleman’s poem “Monster” describing his residential school experience gained national recognition. The poem likens a residential school building to a monster “built to devour native children”. Since its publication, “Monster” has been studied and analyzed by students in high schools and post-secondary institutions across Canada and even read out by an MP in the House of Commons.
In the wake of his success as a poet, Saddleman’s family and friends dubbed him the “Word Warrior” and the name stuck.
“I feel I’m the voice for other residential school survivors who will not share their stories,” he says.
Likewise, the survivors, their family and friends who gathered to hear the Pope’s apology at Maskwacis did not only represent themselves—as Andrews suggests, they also represented those who could not attend in person.
In his apology, Pope Francis said he was deeply sorry “for the ways in which, regrettably, many Christians supported the colonizing mentality of the powers that oppressed the Indigenous peoples.”
He asked 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.”
When Andrews heard the Pope say “I am sorry” and “I ask forgiveness”, she says, she felt a sense of peace.
“I felt it was important to hear those words,” Andrews says. But as she thought about it afterwards, “I was sad that he didn’t go further.”
“I hoped he would have continued to ask forgiveness for the whole Roman Catholic Church’s role in the harm done to Indigenous people through the residential schools and the day schools… Even today, I would have hoped that there would have been a more of a commitment to find ways to encourage a strong Indigenous church.”
Andrews describes the Pope’s apology as a “good small first step”, but says that more needs to be done. She had hoped to hear a commitment to returning Indigenous artifacts and opening up documents “so that people like me can learn the history of my dad and brothers”, but heard no such commitment.
“I also didn’t hear any concrete steps for the Roman Catholic Church moving forward,” she says. “I was really hopeful that there would be some direction, but there didn’t seem to be any plan to move forward in a good way with Indigenous people. So that was sad.”
“I think that there are many things that our people are needing and wanting,” Andrews adds. “Certainly healing centres and programs of healing, access to good trauma counselling, and the recognition that our spirituality and ways and our traditions are of equal value and should be incorporated into the life of the Roman Catholic Church, as we’re trying to do within the Anglican Church.”
Saddleman was mainly listening for any mention of sexual abuse in the Pope’s apology, but did not recall hearing any.
“A lot of the survivors there, they were talking about if there was going to be any compensation in that area or something,” he says.
Following the apology, former grand chief of the Treaty 6 First Nations Chief Wilton Littlechild presented Francis with a traditional Indigenous headdress, or war bonnet. But Saddleman notes some Indigenous people in the audience reacted with anger to the Pope wearing the war bonnet and eagle feathers, which they consider sacred.
“It was almost like a bomb dropped there for some people,” he says. “Some people there were disgusted with that vision of the Pope wearing a war bonnet.”
At that moment, Saddleman recalled his parents and grandfather, who had instilled in him the positive values of their ancestors.
Thinking about their legacy, he says, allowed him to overpower any feelings of anger or rage. He also sensed sincerity in the Pope’s apology.
“I did some prayers and I hoped the good blessings and the good Lord and the ancestors would watch over [those feeling anger] and walk with them, so hopefully someday they will understand what’s going on there with the Pope and the church and the survivors there.”
A large screen at the gathering displayed the words “Walking Together” in the official logo for the Pope’s visit to Canada.
“Part of me there stood up and said, ‘Hey, that’s the first step… Even if it’s a tiny little step, that apology and that war bonnet might be a symbol of walking together,’” Saddleman recalls.
“When I think of walking together, I always think about not just the Catholic Church,” he adds. “I think of all the other churches involved there—the Anglican and the United Church and the Presbyterian Church there that ran residential schools. We’ve got to walk with all the churches. We’ve got to walk with the Catholic Church also, and we have to take that first step towards healing.”
Andrews believes that the Pope’s visit and apology has brought the story of Indigenous people in Canada to the world—shining a spotlight on the harm done to them, but also putting their traditions, culture and spirituality on display.
She also thinks that the Anglican Church of Canada can play a major role in encouraging the Roman Catholic Church and sharing its own journey towards reconciliation over the last few decades.
“Perhaps we have a role in being a model for how we can begin walking together in a good way… I think the Anglican Church has a role to play as an encourager to them and a witness to our own experience, both good and bad,” Andrews says.
In her past ministry on the streets of inner-city Winnipeg and later as a bishop, Andrews notes that she had the opportunity to speak to many residential school survivors and intergenerational survivors.
“It’s been important for me to give the Anglican Church’s apology [for its role in the residential school system] to people, “ she says. “And I think it’ll be equally important for me to help Roman Catholic people that I come in contact with to hear the [Pope’s] apology and to help them to be able to move along their own healing journey, in whatever way that will take shape in the future.”
Some Indigenous Canadians have said they felt satisfied by the apology. But others, including former TRC chair Murray Sinclair, expressed disappointment. In a statement released July 26, Sinclair said the apology fell short of the 58th of the 94 calls to action released by the TRC in 2015. The apology, he said, left a “deep hole” by putting responsibility on individuals rather than the church.