Warning: This story contains distressing details
Warren Seeseequasis trudges through the snowy field where St. Michael’s Indian Residential School once stood.
“Where the other two pine trees are there, that’s where the actual school was,” Seeseequasis says.
In the adjacent cemetery, crosses and small headstones mark the graves of former students. When the snow clears, local residents will start looking for others buried in unmarked graves.
Seeseequasis, a band councillor for the nearby Beardy’s & Okemasis Cree Nation in central Saskatchewan, said many survivors avoid this site.
The deprivations, abuse and crimes committed at St. Michael’s and other residential schools are well-documented.
Seeseequasis says much of the poverty, addictions and health problems facing his people today can be traced back to the school.
That’s why Seeseequasis and many others say Pope Francis and the Catholic Church owe them much more than an apology.
“That [pain] is still in here. It’s been how many years, and I still cry,” survivor Audrey Eyahpaise said in a recent interview at her small apartment, just blocks from the St. Michael’s site.
“You guys destroyed us. Now help, help our people.”
A delegation of survivors, Indigenous leaders and Catholic Church officials is in the Vatican this week to ask Pope Francis to come to Canada to deliver a long-awaited apology.
CBC News interviewed Eyahpaise and more than a dozen other survivors, family members and supporters back in Canada. Most say a papal apology would be welcome, but that the Catholic Church must first provide the promised compensation and documents.
“You’re supposed to be preaching love and care and respect for your fellow man, but if we have to beg for them to apologize and to keep these promises, I don’t think they understand,” said Audrey Eyahpaise’s cousin, Garnet Eyahpaise.
“We lost do much. It was taken away from us. For many years, I couldn’t say ‘I love you’ to my kids.”
In 2006, facing billions in lawsuits from survivors and their descendants, Christian churches, the federal government and survivors signed the landmark Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.
It led to the creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), a healing fund and a deal on compensation.
The Anglican, Presbyterian and United churches promptly paid their full amounts. The Catholic Church did not.
The Catholic promises totalled $79 million. They included a cash payment, a fundraising campaign and “In-kind services.” Survivors and experts say the Catholic Church came up far short on every one of these.
Several years ago, a Saskatchewan judge approved a controversial national buyout requested by Catholic Church lawyers. The federal government appealed, but then withdrew the appeal and the case was closed.
A recent CBC News investigation revealed that millions of dollars meant for survivors instead went to Catholic Church lawyers, administrators and fundraising companies. It also showed Catholic officials spent more than $300 million on church building projects during this time, while claiming they had no additional money for survivors.
Some experts estimate the Catholic Church still owes survivors more than $60 million, plus interest for the delays and breached contract.
Saskatoon Cree lawyer Donald Worme, who served as head counsel for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said the Vatican is worth billions and should pay the bill.
“The Catholic Church has played a corporate shell game around the globe. They operate hundreds, if not thousands of corporations, even in this country, that hold their assets. And far too often, those assets are lost from public review,” Worme said.
Last September, amid growing anger over the thousands of unmarked graves discovered across Canada, along with the new revelations about the failed compensation effort, the Canadian Conference of catholic Bishops announced a new $30-million fundraising campaign for survivors. They said it was a top priority and full national details would be released by November.
Now, four months after that deadline, a CCCB official sent an email response saying some individual diocese are making progress, but the national plan is still being worked on.
“I will update you when we have more to say on this,” wrote Jonathan Lesarge of the CCCB.
The CCCB declined an interview request.
Worme said he and others at the TRC worked hard for years to get the Catholic Church to turn over its residential school records, held both in Canada and at the Vatican. Since the discovery of the unmarked graves across Canada, various Catholic orders have pledged to open their archives, but Worme and others say very little has been done.
Worme said these are just two more examples in the Catholic Church’s long list of broken promises.
“I think their actions speak louder than words,” Worme said.
Thunderchild First Nation lawyer Eleanore Sunchild, who has represented thousands of survivors, agreed.
Sunchild said there must be justice for this century-long genocide against Indigenous peoples.
She said she accepted an invitation to join the Vatican delegation to ensure it’s not just a public relations exercise for the Vatican and the bishops.
“I actually feel conflicted because I have heard thousands of stories from Indian residential school survivors. The particularly heinous ones involved the Roman Catholic Church,” Sunchild said.
“So I hope the pope hears what the survivors and the representatives are telling them — that they caused widespread pain and anguish and suffering. I really hope that they take some steps to repair the damage.”
Back at her home in Saskatchewan, Audrey Eyahpaise works to help those with addictions and mental health issues.
She says the church documents would help survivors learn the full truth about the schools, and the money could fund programs for future generations.
She’s hoping Pope Francis and other Catholic Church officials will do what’s right and take action.
“You’re going to be up there one day. You’re going to be judged one day, you know,” Eyahpaise said.
“You guys destroyed us, now help. Help our people.”
Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for survivors and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419. A Saskatchewan-based line is now available by calling 306-522-7494.
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