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Dr. Marie Wilson’s full speech in Maskwacis for papal visit



Newetsine Mahsi. 

I want to begin by thanking Creator for the gift of this day, and the grace that has brought us all safely to it.

I am very honoured to be visiting you from my northern home and family among the Dene of the Northwest Territories.

I want to acknowledge the good people of Maskwacis, and the four Host First Nations and your Chiefs who have welcomed us here to your unceded Nehiyawak lands in Treaty Six territory.

Some of you may remember me from when I was the Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner honoured to receive your statements at our hearings in this community.

 I want to honour each and every residential school Survivor today – Those of you who travelled great distances to be here – And those of you already here at home -including my fellow Commissioner sitting right over there –

Niciwakan, Chief, Dr. Wilton Littlechild. 

For six years, Willie and I travelled across this country with our TRC Commissioner colleague and Chair, Murray Sinclair.  We recorded almost 7000 Survivors. We heard enough accounts of horrific abuse to know they were not isolated incidents. They were part of a bigger pattern of violence that broke apart families, aiming to eradicate Indigenous cultures and societies. We concluded that the residential schools were, by intent and in reality, a system of cultural genocide.

We have not forgotten your courage as you taught us things we did not know about our own history as a country.

Our 94 TRC Calls to Action challenge all sectors of society to tackle the lasting harms of residential schools, and to invest in new, respectful ways of going forward together. That includes several actions aimed at churches who ran the schools. 

Number 58 speaks directly to the Pope. It calls on him “to issue an apology to Survivors, their families, and communities, for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children in Catholic-run residential schools.” 

You told us many times that a Papal Apology would be an important moment of truth for the church, and for your own journeys of healing and reconciliation. 

You have waited a long time for this moment – 

To hear from the head of the church that ran the schools where so many of you lost your childhoods.

We called for it to happen six years ago…

We sincerely acknowledge His Holiness Pope Francis as the one who will make it happen today, at long last, on your own lands.  

We also acknowledge the role of the Canadian Council of Catholic Bishops in making it so.

We all know an apology is but a first step in making amends. A sincere spirit of reconciliation must guide the long road still ahead, to make up for decades of secrecy and denial that surrounded both residential and day boarding schools. 

You, the Survivors, were the heroes who went to court to get your Truth and Reconciliation Commission – a place for you to be heard, and for the world to learn about the thousands of other little ones who never made it home. We will not forget them. 

In our final report, the Commission dedicated an entire volume to the issue of missing children and unmarked graves. To me, a Commissioner, but also the wife of a residential school Survivor, as a mother, and a grandmother, this has always been one of the most troubling aspects of the residential school legacy: 

Parents and families forever denied the presence of a beloved child, and even the peace of knowing whatever happened to them;

Young ones denied the dignity of being laid to rest in the respectful ways of their own people. 

Many children are still missing.

Our TRC was able to confirm 3,201 deaths at the schools, and another thousand who were sent home to die within a year. But we could only estimate how many other children died, with many missing records. Those we could see were generally incomplete, missing the cause of death, or even the name or gender of the child. 

Most of them were not returned to their families and communities, buried instead in school cemeteries and associated burial plots. Today these sites are largely unidentified – unrecorded, abandoned, and overgrown.

Last year, children cried out to us from their graves. The country and the world heard them, and were in shock as more than a thousand unmarked burial sites near various schools were confirmed. There are many others still to be found and we must continue the emotional and expensive work of looking for them. As I said earlier, this is just the beginning. 

So, may we find new hope and new resolve in the Holy Father’s words today.

The whole world is watching, hoping to learn from what we have done and continue to do here in Canada.

May we continue to walk this road together, with the great courage you have already shown, and an enduring commitment to truth and reconciliation. 

And may this day be remembered as Holy – as the light of truth, the hope of Apology, and the release of healing bring some peace to all your lives.

Kisa kihitin. Je vous aime. 

Hiy Hiy, 

Mahsi Cho, Migwetch, Quajannamik– 

Thank you, Merci Beaucoup.

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“Ka-kí-kiskéyihtétan óma, namoya kinwés maka aciyowés pohko óma óta ka-hayayak wasétam askihk, ékwa ka-kakwéy miskétan kiskéyihtamowin, iyinísiwin, kistéyitowin, mina nánisitotatowin kakiya ayisiniwak, ékosi óma kakiya ka-wahkotowak.”

Cree Proverb