Watching Francis’ visit to Iqaluit from her home in Rankin Inlet, Cathy Towtongie said she wishes the federal government and organizations involved in planning the visit showed Francis the realities and challenges facing Indigenous people and communities even today. (File photo)
Pope Francis’s apologies this week hit Cathy Towtongie hard, both physically and emotionally.
“My body was feeling the impact of being a residential school survivor,” she said Friday. “As a survivor, I had to be gentle with myself that day.
“I lay in my bedroom with darkened windows. And I slept.”
Towtongie, a former MLA from Rankin Inlet, said she also visited the local health centre and sought mental health support over the phone.
The past week — during which the Pope apologized numerous times for abuses committed by Catholic clergy in the residential school system — revived a lot of memories, she said.
Towtongie was one of many Nunavummiut who followed the Pope’s visit from a distance, in their home communities.
She said the experience brought back memories of two other students at her school — her friends — who died by suicide while there.
After so many years, she could no longer remember their names.
But the Pope’s apology brought them both back.
“When I went to the health centre, a health-care worker told me that sometimes, with very traumatic experiences, children forget,” she said.
“And that’s what’s happened to me — I had forgotten that evening, and I had forgotten their names. But I remember them now.”
Watching Francis’s appearance in Iqaluit Friday from her home in Rankin Inlet, Towtongie said she wishes the federal government and organizations involved in planning the visit made clear to Francis the realities and challenges facing Indigenous people and communities even today.
“[Francis] should have been shown reserves where there’s lack of housing and where there are no jobs, even in Nunavut,” she said.
“I see a very polished visit, but what I would have wanted to see is a grassroots approach.”
Tatanniq Kiijju, who is from Iqaluit but living in Toronto currently, was not a residential school survivor herself, but lives with survivors and is a child of the Sixties Scoop.
The Pope’s visit and apology deeply affected her, Kiijju said. And yet, the opportunity for survivors and their families to share the harm they experienced has also instilled in her a “sense of calm.”
“Through all these revelations of being able to speak our reality and our truth, we find strength even when it hurts,” she said.
“And even if we don’t find the strength for ourselves, we find strength for elders, for others who need it.”
Kiijju said she wishes the Pope acknowledged the harm done by the Catholic Church, but recognizes the effort he put into making the trip.
“Even though he missed out on taking the opportunity to make the Catholic Church accountable, I felt [the Pope’s] sincerity personally,” she said. “It didn’t make me like him any more. But he lowered himself in a human way, at the most basic human level, and I felt that.”
She hopes the visit will lead to the federal government and Catholic Church making reparations. Though, she adds, she has little hope for it.
In Cambridge Bay, Inuit watched the Pope’s visit to Iqaluit together via livestream, put together by the hamlet’s healthy living department and Inuit Nunangat Ipirauttaaq Society at the POLAR Canadian High Arctic Research Station.
Chief administrative officer Jim MacEachern said about 75 community members attended.
“Some of them were very emotional — in tears and appreciative of the Pope’s speech,” he said. “Others just took it in and used it as a healing mechanism.
“Not everyone in the community went to residential school, but the impacts of residential school are felt by almost every family in the community.”
The hamlet put together a separate event with games for kids, and a community barbecue following the end of the livestream.
Counsellors were present and will be available moving forward for those grieving and healing from the Pope’s visit.
“It’s been an emotional day for a lot of people,” MacEachern said of the day. “In the long run, it’s going to be very positive and very therapeutic.”
Here are resources for people in distress who need to talk to someone:
Kamatsiaqtut Help Line is Nunavut-specific and offers services in Inuktitut. Phone: 979-3333 for Iqaluit residents and 1-800-265-3333 for other Nunavummiut.
The First Nations and Inuit Hope for Wellness Helpline: 1-855-242-3310 or chat online at hopeforwellness.ca.