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Pope residential school apology could have symbolic impact on indigenous students

By Jennifer Khil, June 07 2017 —

Last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked Pope Francis to apologize for the Catholic Church’s role in Canadian residential schools. The request was one of 94 recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Trudeau promised action on each recommendation, though he cannot guarantee the Pope’s cooperation.

“[An apology] would be appreciated by certain indigenous students, especially those whose families were affected by residential schools,” said University of Calgary Indigenous Students’ Council (ISC) Chief Alisha Gordon said.

Gordon said the effects of residential schools are still felt today by indigenous post-secondary students.

“We haven’t gotten to a point where we see equity in post-secondary schools,” Gordon said. “Residential schools have left such a harsh legacy that it’s hard [for many indigenous students] to even think of attending post-secondary school. It’s a multi-layered issue. It brought about poverty, alcoholism and trauma. These things continue to affect indigenous children, especially the cycle of abuse and the cycle of sexual abuse which have unfortunately gone on in our communities.”

Roughly 500 indigenous students currently attend the U of C, around 80 of which are members of the ISC. The U of C will see 108 indigenous students convocate this summer.

“I can speak as the daughter of a residential school survivor that indigenous people, specifically residential school survivors and their children, need something more than symbolic action,” Gordon said. “It’s what comes next. I don’t think that apologies will really change things at this point.”

Gordon said many schools, including the U of C, are trying to be more inclusive of indigenous students, through programs such as the Aboriginal Student Access Program (ASAP). ASAP gives students who attended on-reserve high schools not recognized by the U of C or students who are missing course requirements a year-long transition into the school. Gordon said programs like this speak louder than words.

“An apology wouldn’t be bad,” Gordon said. “I’m just concerned [that] symbolism should come with action. It would be interesting if [the Pope] apologized and then put some action toward it.”

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