This past summer, Pope Francis made a penitential visit to Canada, marking an important step forward in the Church’s efforts to make amends to Indigenous groups in North America. Even so, the visit was not without controversy. In addition to divided public opinion on the Pope’s apology statements, Indigenous women’s voices were heard and silenced in equal measure throughout the July 24 – 29 visit.
The Catholic Church’s Involvement in Residential Schools
The trip was made in response to findings that Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission released in 2015 on the role that the Catholic Church played in residential schools for Indigenous children. From the 1880s to the 1960s, these schools forced Indigenous children to assimilate by prohibiting native languages and cultural practices. The Catholic Church sponsored 80 of the 130 Canadian residential schools, where Indigenous students suffered physical, emotional, sexual, and spiritual abuse. Over 4,000 children died in the schools’ care, and many were found in 2021 in unmarked graves outside of three schools.
Throughout the pilgrimage to cities in Alberta, Quebec, and the Nunavut Arctic territory, Pope Francis repeatedly apologized for the “evil” committed in the residential schools, condemning the abusive practices as “incompatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” However, the pontiff’s statements drew fire from critics who felt there was a lack of sufficient emphasis on the Church’s institutional failings in the matter, as Francis’ words instead focused on the actions of individual Catholics.
Indigenous Women Highlighted – and Shut Out
Some were angered for different reasons. Among those was Cree woman Si Pih Ko, also known as Trina Francois. She was present for Pope Francis’ first apology on July 25, after which honorary chief of the Ermineskin First Nation Wilton Littlehead gifted Francis a headdress, which he wore briefly over his skullcap (or zucchetto) before an aide removed it.
Seeing this, Si Pih Ko was outraged. She felt that in failing to remove his own cap before donning the headdress, Francis did not take off the law of the Catholic Church before putting on Indigenous law, the law of their land.
This led to one of the most powerful, unscripted moments of the papal visit, in which a woman’s voice was front and center: Si Pih Ko emerged from the crowd to face the pontiff, and with single fist raised, she began to sing in Cree, her expression pained and her voice raw with emotion as tears flowed freely down her face.
While some present believed Si Pih Ko’s song was the Canadian National Anthem “O Canada” in Cree, in reality, it was “Ka ka na tak,” or “Our Village,” a song asserting Indigenous sovereignty and the power of women in particular.
“I told him, ‘You are hereby served spoken law. We, the daughters of the Great Spirit and our tribal sovereign members cannot be coerced into any law, any treaty that is not the Great Law,’” Si Pih Ko explained later to news outlets, including the CBC. "We have appointed chiefs on our territories. Govern yourselves accordingly. 'Hiy Hiy' does not mean 'Thank you.' It means that I have nothing more to say."
In interviews, Si Pih Ko described a newfound sense of inner peace and closure after this exchange; it came not from the Pope’s apology, but from what she shared with her own voice.
Women’s voices were heard in other contexts as well. On the morning of July 29, the day Francis left Quebec City for Inaquit in Nunavut, he held an audience to speak directly with survivors of residential schools. During his remarks before the press was dismissed for a private meeting with the survivors, he highlighted three holy women, including Mary, St. Anne, and St. Kateri Tekakwitha, who could offer a new model for reconciliation and renewal in Catholic-Indigenous relations. Notably, St. Kateri is the first Indigenous North American Catholic saint, an important touchstone for the over 500,000 Indigenous Canadians who identify as Catholic.
That said, even at that very event where an Indigenous female saint was a key talking point, Indigenous women were not given full representation. Reports shared that a group of Indigenous women – supporters of the survivors – were asked to leave due to a lack of space and overabundance of Catholic clergy present. The women were holding cradleboards, traditional carriers that represented the estimated thousands of children lost to residential schools, making their absence from the event doubly distressing.
True Reconciliation Means Acknowledging the Harm Done
True reconciliation does not gloss over the offense or pretend that it never happened. Genuine contrition acknowledges the depth of the harm that was done and vows to make reparations. For the Catholic Church, such acknowledgement includes the lives lost to and intergenerational trauma caused by the residential schools, and it also includes the need to address the failings of the papal visit that caused further harm to Indigenous women.
As Mandy Gull-Masty, the first female grand chief of the Cree First Nation, emphasized when she shared her thoughts on the papal visit with America Magazine, more work lies ahead for both the Church and political bodies. That work must center the voices of survivors of residential schools and women, and it must include actionable steps forward towards reparations.
She feels optimistic about Pope Francis as a partner in those efforts: “I think with what we’ve seen so far from the pope, there’s an openness from him to really have that partnership working together, walking together, moving forward.”