‘Are words enough?’: First Nations on Vancouver Island react to papal apology


The Kuper Island Indian Residential School near Chemainus was nicknamed “Alcatraz” because of the inability for the children to escape. It was open from 1889 to 1975.

Steve Sxwithul’txw was forced to go to the school in 1970 when he was five years old. His sisters and several other family members also attended the school, leaving a deep, dark mark on all of them.

“Whether you went one year, five years, 10 years it doesn’t really matter,” he said. “The fact of the matter is it was wrong and there was a lot of harm that was instilled on our people and that’s still prevalent today.”

Kuper Island was one of two Roman Catholic run Residential Schools on Vancouver Island. The other was near Tofino.

It is why many eyes were on the Vatican this week as a delegation of First Nations, Metis and Inuit met with Pope Francis and then Friday, heard these long-awaited words.

“I ask for God’s forgiveness and I want to say to you with all my heart I am very sorry,” Pope Francis read in a prepared statement.

For Steve Sxwithul’txw, the stories of pain and suffering that the Pope heard all week was more important than getting an apology.

“It’s an educational process I think for the Pope and the Bishops that were there to listen and learn what the church did to our people,” said Sxwithul’txw.

When asked what the apology meant to him he replied, “I wasn’t really too concerned about it to be honest. To lots of others it was everything and I understand that but I didn’t lose a lot of sleep over it.”

The president of the Nuu-cha-nulth Tribal Council Judith Sayers said in a statement, “People need to realize that an apology can never take away the intense and ongoing pain and trauma of sexual, physical, mental and emotional abuse that was wrought upon our people in residential schools and the negative impacts that had on generations of our families and communities.”

She went on to ask, “Are words enough? Words are a start, but it should never have taken this many years and so much effort to get an apology.”

The full Nuu-chah-nulth statement can be found here.

Steve Sxwithul’txw says if the Pope comes to Canada he should come to Vancouver Island as well.

The Penelakut First Nation announced last July that more than 160 unmarked graves had been found on the grounds and foreshore of the former Kuper Island Residential School.

Dean StoltzDean Stoltz

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