Warning: The story below contains details about abuse in residential schools that may be upsetting. Canada’s National Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day on 1-866-925-4419.
Maskwacis, Canada – When Flora Northwest was six years old she was forced to leave her parents to attend what was then known as Ermineskin Indian Residential School in Alberta, western Canada, along with other Indigenous children.
For the next 10 years, Flora lived at the school where she says she endured physical, spiritual, verbal and sexual abuse at the hands of the priests, nuns and staff who ran the institution. The pain of those years has never quite left her.
Seven decades later, in early April this year, Flora, from her home in Samson Cree Nation, one of four First Nations which make up the Maskwacis community of central Alberta, watched in disbelief as Pope Francis made a historic apology for the Catholic Church’s role in the forcible removal of Indigenous children from their families and the abuses and neglect committed in Canada’s residential schools.
“When I realised that he apologised, I started to cry,” the 77-year-old with deep brown eyes framed by furrows and her white hair pulled back, recounts on a sunny July morning. She sits amid towering trees in the expansive grassy back yard of her eldest son’s rural home, the same place where she once raised her children, in Samson Cree Nation.
Following the 2015 report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada to examine the legacy of residential schools, survivors called on the pope to apologise.
“I thought, what made him change his mind? What made him make that apology? Why did it take so long?” Flora says.
From July 24 to 29, Pope Francis is in Canada for a pastoral visit of healing and reconciliation with survivors of the Indian residential school system.
On July 25, the pope will visit Maskwacis (formerly known as Hobbema), which in the Cree language means “Bear Hills”, and the place where Ermineskin residential school – now torn down – one of the largest of these institutions, once stood. Many anticipate an apology.
This visit to Maskwacis, home to about 8,000 Indigenous people, will be the only First Nations community he will set foot on.
The pope’s visit to her community is something an elated Flora says she could not have conjured in her wildest dreams. It is an opportunity to repair gaping wounds left by the church.
Now, Flora is hoping to hear that apology again but in person.
Forced to assimilate
Ermineskin Indian Residential School operated from 1916 to 1975 and was one of 139 federally mandated residential schools designed to forcibly assimilate Indigenous children into the mainstream Canadian culture. The Catholic Church oversaw 60 percent of these church- and state-run schools.
More than 150,000 Indigenous children attended the institutions from the late 1800s until 1997 when the last school closed.
Abuses were widespread and Indigenous languages and cultural practices were forbidden. The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation records 15 children who died while attending the Ermineskin institution, however, Maskwacis began searching for unmarked graves last autumn using ground-penetrating radar after the unmarked graves of hundreds of Indigenous children were discovered across the country starting in spring 2021. Maskwacis has not yet released the findings of its search.
Flora wears a white T-shirt that says: “Ermineskin Indian school, Hobbema, I survived…!!” She is among those who survived to tell the tale of the hell she lived through.
“Back then, you didn’t say nothing. You could never say anything no matter what you saw – there was always that fear. We were in prison. I’m free now to speak out,” she says emphatically.
Flora was born in 1945 not far from where she now lives. For the first five years of her life, she spoke only her native Cree language and frolicked freely in the rolling meadow landscape. Life was good, she says. Every morning her grandfather rose early and went outside of their canvas tent dwelling to play his drum and sing traditional songs. She could hear other elders joining in from their homes in the distance.
But after she turned six and when the autumn season came around, her mother told her she would have to go live at the Ermineskin residential school. It was government policy; if parents refused to send their children to the schools, they faced arrest.
‘We cannot speak our Cree language’
She remembers screaming and kicking when her parents brought her to the school. “I cried and cried and cried and then they [staff] took me into the building and there was an older girl that was able to take care of me,” says Flora.
Flora did not understand a word of English.
“‘You cannot, we cannot speak our Cree language’,” she remembers the girl telling her in Cree. “I said: ‘Why?’ She said, ‘Because they’re not gonna let us speak Cree. They’re only letting me speak to you because you don’t understand English and you have to learn that language.’”
Flora’s long dark hair was shorn off, school staff threw her a school uniform to change into and she was given a number instead of her name to be referred to – number 62. She felt confused and terrified. She remembers countless nights of crying herself to sleep.
“I don’t know how I learned English,” says Flora, shaking her head. “I just withdrew, I didn’t understand what was happening. All I remember is that fear, that trauma.”
The children were expected to do chores like scrubbing floors and toilets, taking care of farm animals as well as weeding an enormous garden filled with vegetables of all kinds in the summertime. But, Flora says she and the other children were always hungry.
“There was cows, there was pigs and big gardens. There were chickens, there was eggs. We didn’t get to eat all of that. It was always the priests and the nuns that would get the best and all the supervisors,” she says. “We learned how to steal food, and that was one of the things they taught us. They taught us: ‘Thou shall not steal’. Well, if you don’t feed us, we’ll steal.”
‘They killed my spirit as a little girl’
The words “savages”, “pagans” and “sinners”, terms the nuns often used towards the children, were burned into her psyche. But Flora did not know what sin was, she says.
“We were kids, we didn’t know anything about that. But whatever it was, we had to learn. We had to sit on our knees in a corner and say Hail Marys,” she says. “We’d have to go to confession. I didn’t know what to say when I went to confession, so I had to make up a lie.”
And then there was the electric fence surrounding the parameter of the school designed to stop the students from running away. Looking back, Flora says she did not know the implications of the electric fence until she was older.
The fence ran on the other side of the slide in front of the playground, Flora explains. “We still tried to find ways to have fun. So what the kids used to do was line up. The first one would touch the electric fence and all the current would go through right to the very last one,” she says, adding that she would always try to be in the middle.
“Now that I look back, it was cruel, it was brutal to keep us inside that compound with this electric fence,” she says.
Flora rarely saw her parents while attending the school. Children were permitted to return home during Christmas and summer holidays, but that did not always happen because not everyone had access to transportation to retrieve their children. She became disconnected from her family, culture and identity, growing bitter as the years went by.
Some of her most violent memories are of being raped by a priest who she shows a picture of from a small school information booklet printed in 1968. She wants the world to know his face, to know the evils he inflicted on her and, she suspects, many others.
“I hated him. I was scared of him. I didn’t want him near me, but he always caught me from behind. I tried to get away from him; it was impossible. Sometimes I’d wonder when I went to bed: ‘Is it going to be a good night or is it going to not be safe?’” she says, her voice almost a whisper.
By the time she was sent out by the school to live in the white man’s world in the nearby city of Wetaskiwin and work as a nanny for a family at age 16, Flora said she was reeling from the traumas of the institution that raised her.
“They killed my spirit as a little girl,” she says. “They killed that spirit within me and were successful for that period of time.”
‘He’s gonna say sorry’
In her early 20s, Flora got married and had five children. But she also fell into alcoholism for nearly 10 years. It was a way for her to become “numb” and forget her troubled past. Then in 1974 she went into rehabilitation and has not touched a drop of alcohol since. Her former husband, also a residential school survivor, did not overcome the demons that haunted him from the abuses he experienced as a child.
He died at age 40 in 1980 of cirrhosis of the liver from incessant alcohol consumption. Their son, Winston, 53, was 11 years old when he bid his father goodbye. He says he knew what killed him.
“My mom told us [about the residential school] right after he died. It made sense,” says Winston, choking up, tears welling in his brown eyes. “I was never angry with him after that. I was able to put myself in his shoes.”
When Winston learned that Pope Francis was coming to Maskwacis he paid a visit to his father’s grave.
“I told my dad the pope was coming … the pope is gonna be here,” he pauses to catch his breath, overwhelmed with emotion. “‘He’s gonna say sorry,’” he says he told him.
When the pope comes to Maskwacis, it will be a “chance to settle that [his father’s death] and move on,” he continues.
“I think it’s awesome that he’s coming here. It will be a sombre moment, but it will show the power of our culture. It’s time for us to return back, revive our ceremonies. I think the future is going to be bright,” says Winston. He adds that he is proud to stand with his mother and the rest of the survivors that day.
Flora was stunned when she found out about the pope’s upcoming visit.
“I said: ‘Wow, I’m gonna be there. I really want to hear it [the apology],” she says. “But I had to go back to my past, I had to go back to the teachings of our elders to forgive.”
Her journey of healing and forgiveness – Flora went on to work in education and worked with a traditional healer to revisit her past – took years. She says she could not hold onto the “poison” of not being able to forgive the Catholic Church, the government and the perpetrators, and although she still feels the sting of the pain inflicted upon her, she let the anger go.
“I used to say: ‘They can damn well rot in hell.’ Well, now I can say: ‘Rest in peace. I forgive you for what you’ve done to me,’ even to that priest and to the pope,” she says.
‘We need our freedom’
Flora plans to attend a ceremony with Pope Francis at the site of the former Ermineskin residential school with her children and grandchildren. Thousands of Indigenous people are expected to attend from all over Canada.
The federal government took over the school in 1969. The residence area closed in the early 1970s and the educational facilities were transferred to the Ermineskin Cree Nation. The building has since been demolished and all that remains is a large grassy field. The site is considered sacred and a memorial.
Flora and other Indigenous people hope Pope Francis will fulfil another request to the Vatican – to rescind the Doctrine of Discovery [DoD]. The first series of the doctrine was created by Pope Alexander VI in 1492 upon Christopher Columbus’s voyage to the Americas and was used by European colonisers to stake claim to Indigenous lands. Land was considered terra nullius (vacant land) if it had not yet been occupied by Christians. It ushered in an era of land dispossession and genocide against Indigenous nations.
“I would ask him if he could release us [from the DoD] and let it go,” says Flora, while holding up a printed paper copy of the doctrine. “I’m hoping that my dream will come true. This is for our people, for our future generations. We need to go on in our lives, we need to have our freedom … we’re still not free.”