WARNING: This story contains graphic descriptions which may be triggering to survivors of sexual trauma.
When Pope Francis visits Canada, at least one group of Residential School Survivors are expecting more than just an apology.
Members of the Fort Norman Métis, a community in Tulita, are reminding people of the long shadows cast by by Grollier Hall, where many of the community were held as children. They are calling for the church to practice what it preaches.
“The past is not the past when it comes to what happened to our children at Grollier Hall residential school in Inuvik,” said residential school survivor Rocky Norwegian. “We are still living the effects of the past, and no words of apology from the Roman Catholic Church will change that.
“What is needed, for healing, are specific acknowledgements of the Church’s sins, and true repentance for the harms it has caused.”
In a press release, the nation reminds people there were at least four dormitory supervisors who were convicted of sexual abuse against students imprisoned in the Residential School System; Joseph Jean Louis Comeau, who ran the dormitories from 1959 to 1965, Martin Houston, who was in charge from 1960 to 1962, George Maczynski, who ran the place from 1966 to 1967 and Paul Leroux, who was dorm supervisor from 1967 to 1979.
Leroux was convicted in the 1998 for 14 crimes at Grollier Hall and spent 10 years in prison. He was later sentenced again in 2013 for sexual abuse at Beauval School in Saskatchewan and was initially sentenced to three years in prison. He served one year, was released on parole, but was imprisoned as second time in 2015 after a court of appear increased his sentence to eight years.
Houston, known as “the Devil of Grollier Hall,” was charged and convicted in 1962 for the sexual abuse of five boys at Grollier Hall. He served 10 years in prison and was later ordained as a Catholic Priest in 1990. He later pleaded guilty to one count of sodomy and two counts of indecent assault in 2004 and was placed on probation for three years.
Comeau was convicted of two counts of indecent assault in 1998 and sentenced to a year for each charge. He was charged again in 2003 but died before his trial date. Maczynski was sentenced to four years in the same rash of trials.
The Fort Norman press release notes both the Church and Ottawa were aware of the dangers faced by the children at Grollier Hall, yet even after the first wave of convictions no counselling services or healing programs were provided to the victims of the four rapists.
“We had absolutely no support from the church at all,” said Richard I. Hardy, a Grollier Hall survivor who testified against Houston when he was 15. “We were made to feel as if it was our fault. The only thing we were told by a priest was to pray for Martin Houston. Nobody said, ‘This isn’t your fault,’ or, ‘We’ll make sure this never happens again.’”
Hardy, who has since gone on to practice law, noted the only person who expressed sympathy for the molested children was the RCMP investigator, Sgt. Hugh Feagan. Feagan noted even he was shocked by the lack of support for survivors. “There was nothing available to treat the boys after Houston was convicted, like mental health supports,” Feagan said. “We expected the church to offer some support but they didn’t.”
Suffering from intergenerational trauma
Grollier Hall held children from age five to 19 taken from communities in the Sahtu, Kitikmeot and Beaufort Delta regions and was operated by the Roman Catholic Church. Between 200 and 250 children were there at any given time, with dormitories separated into girls and boys.
Of the 380 living members of the Fort Norman Metis Nation, approximately 60 are survivors of the residential school system and around 250 are the children or grandchildren of survivors. Prior to the establishment of Grollier Hall, residential schools in Fort Providence and Aklavik were in operation, meaning people in the area were institutionalized in the system for well over a century.
Children forced to attend Grollier Hall were away from their families for much of the year. Children forced to attend the earlier schools were away from their families for decades and many were unable to communicate with their families upon return, having not been permitted to speak their native languages at school.
The press release noted the church and government needed to account for the intergenerational trauma they are responsible for.
“The impacts of this removal of children, year after year, have taken a long time for people to fully understand,” it reads. “It affected parenting – when children were treated cruelly, and often abused, they did not learn how to parent children themselves as they would have done if they had lived at home.
“It affected health and diet – children didn’t learn how to hunt and collect food from the land and prepare those foods as they would have done at home. It fuelled the abuse of alcohol as a way to mute the pain of the cruelty they had suffered at school. Some found it impossible to live with their pain.”
An Indigenous delegation has been invited to meet with Pope Francis in Rome on from Dec. 17 to 21. The Metis National Council, which is part of the delegation, is calling for apologies on behalf of Metis students who attended the church run schools, noting an apology is one of the 94 calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Meanwhile, Hardy has written Pope Francis personally and called for an unequivocal acknowledgement of the crimes the church perpetuated on survivors, saying that without concrete action an apology is meaningless.
“The pain that we endured in the residence has never left us,” he said. “I am 74 years old and still have nightmares related to the criminal acts. This was compounded by the denial by the church, notwithstanding the permanent criminal record documents that prove what happened to us. The denials continued until the church was finally called to account by the Government of Canada.
“Then the Church began accusing many, unnamed, survivors of making the stories up just to get money.”
All four of the men mentioned in the press release had engaged in sexual abuse before working at Grollier Hall. Noting there was no screening system put in place, the Fort Norman Metis are calling on Pope Francis to reach out directly to survivors.
They are calling for the Pope to “sincerely and humbly” ask the survivors for forgiveness and promise the church will “never commit such crimes again.”