Airdronian Amber Ward (Kakakaway), who belongs to the White Bear Nation (Treaty Four) has mixed emotions over Pope Francis' papal visit to Alberta in July. 

"To hear that he is coming; it's good. I do think it is long overdue. It is most unfortunate that it took finding thousands of children's bodies for that to happen," she said. "It needed to have happened a lot sooner. I think possibly it would be a lot more receptive to more people if it had."

Ward said that last year when the bodies of 215 children were recovered at the site of a former residential school in British Columbia, she began demonstrations.

"I started doing peaceful demonstrations in front of Catholic Churches to a invite them to join with us and amplify our voices asking for this type of papal apology. But secondly, it was to foster an environment of education and learning," she said. "Many people are still unaware or do not acknowledge or minimize; they can't reconcile the idea of what they've heard with their own personal experiences and beliefs."

To date, thousands of remains of First Nations children have been recovered across Canada, on or around the properties of former residential schools. Months ago in March, the Kapawe’no First Nation, which is about 370 kilometres northwest of Edmonton, said they uncovered another potential mass grave containing the remains of 169 bodies.

When Ward heard that Pope Francis had publically apologized in April for the horrendous abuses that children suffered at the hands of Catholic Church members in residential schools, she was in disbelief. She said that considering the apology came on April 1st, April Fool's Day, she was skeptical whether it was sincere. In his remarks, the Pope said that he felt shame.

"I have said this to you and now I'm repeating it, sorrow and shame, for the role that a number of Catholics, particularly those with educational responsibilities, have had in all these things that wounded you, in the abuses you suffered and in the lack of respect shown for your identity, your culture and even your spiritual values. All these things are contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ," the Pope's statement read.

However, Ward believes that an apology should only be the beginning of the process of reconciliation. Ward has taught her own children that there are four parts to an apology. She believes that first and foremost, one must identify what was done. If they don’t identify the issue, the rest of the apology isn’t valid.

"Acknowledging the impact that had on the other person, the 'I'm sorry', and then a plan and actionable things to do to ensure that it doesn't happen again."

Ward said documents should be released, along with the names of the people who were involved in residential schools. Ward also said it's not just the actions of the Catholic Church that need to be observed, but there needs to be a broader action of non-Indigenous Canadians in order for true reconciliation to take place. She cited a quote from The White Goose Flying Report, which was written in 2016 by the Calgary Aboriginal Urban Advisory Committee, an advisory committee to Calgary City Council.

"Reconciliation means a shared and active process between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples to transform relationships and understanding by acknowledging what has happened in the past, addressing the impact of colonial policies and then following through with action. It has to be about building that bridge. It has to be about transforming those relationships," Ward said. "Nothing can make it right because it's happened and in the past, but I think so many non-indigenous folks don't fully comprehend the effects that are still in place now."

Ward who herself is in the process of reclaiming her Indigenous family name, which means the voice of an eagle, said her mother was part of the 60s Scoop. The term was first coined by Patrick Johnston. The term is used to refer to the mass removal of Indigenous children from their families into the child welfare system, in most cases without the consent of their families or bands.

"[My mom] was adopted into a family. I grew up knowing them as my grandparents and my aunts and uncles. Considering the stories that you hear, she ended up in a fairly good home. But because she was there, and because of what she had experienced, she lost her connection to her family and to our culture, and our beliefs" Ward said. 

Only recently Ward found out that she had dozens upon dozens of cousins in the Calgary area.

"Part of my reclaiming my name isn't just about a name. That name is the connection to my people, my family, my friends, my community, my beliefs, my way of life, my culture, and spirituality," she said. "All of which I was disconnected from. That name is a physical representation of what it means for me to stand on my feet firmly and proudly and say I am a First Nations woman."

But inter-generational trauma has not spared her family. Ward's grandparents, aunts and uncles all went to residential schools. 

"[My grandmother] she passed away quite young, because of her experiences in residential school. In my book, I wrote that for all the things that we as First Nations people went through at schools and with our families who experienced that same hurt; sometimes when our insides hurt so much, we do things on the outside to make our insides, not feel. That was very much the situation with my grandma."

Ultimately, Ward believes that the justest thing the country and other institutions, can do on the path to reconciliation, is to bring the individuals who were involved in the residential school system to justice.

"As somebody who grew up in the church, like me, I grew up Christian, I know that Christian leaders are held to a higher standard, which means when they perpetuate things like this, like horrors against human beings, that they are also not held to the same standard as other people because they had power," she said. "There's that power differential, and they abused it and that. Their names need to be released, and they need to be charged."

When asked if she will be attending any of the events that Pope Francis is scheduled to be at, Ward stated definitively that she will not attend. 

"In the last year, I have really had to look at myself and my beliefs. I have had to really, really separate my spirituality and my beliefs and my values from human beings that represent an organization that is the church. I think I really had to acknowledge that the churches, the Catholic Church, and all churches are full of human beings and human beings are broken, and they make mistakes. I am more than okay, hearing about it, but I think going there, I actually think I'd be quite angry."

Pope Francis is slated to visit Canada beginning in July. His visit starts on July 24, 2022, in Alberta. He is scheduled to meet with former Ermineskin Residential School survivors in, Maskwacis, Alberta as well as meeting with Indigenous peoples and members of the parish community of Sacred Heart in Edmonton, Alberta.

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