The Tshakapesh family stands at the Basiica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré in Quebec.Contributed by Simeon Tshakapesh

Original Published on Jul 27, 2022 at 05:50

By Peter Jackson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Simeon Tshakapesh seems remarkably upbeat for someone who’s about to witness a momentous and solemn event that’s been a long time coming for First Nations people in Canada.

But that’s because he’s learned forgiveness over time, despite having experienced abuse as a child.

The former Natuashish band council chief is in Quebec with his extended family to witness an apology from Pope Francis on Thursday for the wrongs done to Indigenous peoples in Canada by the Catholic Church.

“Almost the whole town is here,” Tshakapesh said with a chuckle.

“I think most people are anxious to see the Pope and be part of the service of the mass,” he said, “and despite all the atrocities that have transpired with residential schools — and not only with residential schools. We also have sexual abuse experiences with missionaries back in the early 1960s.”

At least 70 per cent of the 1,400-seat-capacity Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré Basilica, just north of Quebec City, will be set aside for Indigenous attendees, with survivors of residential schools situated at the front.

Most of the additional 10,000 seats being set up outside the church are also expected to be occupied by First Nations groups.

“I learned how to forgive and move forward with my healing journey. It’s not easy,” Tshakapesh said about being abused by a Catholic missionary as a child in David Inlet.

“It’s something I don’t want any boy to experience. It’s not a very pleasant experience. It takes away from you your soul, your pride, your dignity, and it takes something out of your heart,” he said. “It’s really hard to explain, but I don’t know what kind of God he works with when he does that to me. What kind of God do you work for when you do that to a child?

“But I got through it. I learned how to cope with these atrocities, but sometimes I still have flashbacks and struggle with it.”

Tshakapesh realizes not all of the Indigenous people from Labrador and Quebec who have gathered for the event have been able to get past the hurt.

“Some people may not be able to forgive at this time, and that’s very understandable because of the trauma we went through as Innu people with the Roman Catholic Church and missionaries.”

But he said the sheer number of people and the camaraderie among them has helped lift spirits.

Tshakapesh says previous popes have been able to ignore the dark legacy because it’s taken a long time to bring it out in the open.

“Today it’s more out in the public, out in the media, and I think the Pope was pressured to acknowledge those atrocities and the trauma that the Aboriginal people faced across Canada,” he said.

“You can’t dodge a bullet when you have the facts in front of you.”

Future plans

Tshakapesh has been doing his part to help organize where he can. As an elder and former chief, a lot of people look to him for guidance.

He’s been especially proud to take his infant granddaughter, Everly, everywhere they go as they check out the various sights. 

Everly was born with a condition called 3MC syndrome that left her with facial deformities and other complications.

He’s also excited for the annual Innu gathering he’s organizing in Natuashish. Quebec and Labrador elders will all be there for a week, starting Aug. 21.

“We’ve been meeting a lot of Quebec Innu, and talking to a lot of elders,” he said.

Pope Francis started his tour of Canada in Edmonton on Monday, and travels to Quebec today. He plans to make a public address on the Plains of Abraham this afternoon.

The basilica mass Thursday is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. Newfoundland time.

A stop in Iqaluit is also planned before he departs for Rome.

This item reprinted with permission from The Telegram, St. John;s, Newfoundland