‘Just a word’: Indigenous translator says Pope’s apology must be heeded

As Alberta welcomes the pope this week, a residential school survivor on the official Indigenous language translation team for the visit says an apology is not enough.

“That apology means nothing, it’s just a word. We need some kind of retribution,” says Henry Pitawanakwat, archaeologist and translator of the Three Fires Confederation. “Our language was almost lost, almost on the verge of extinction in those residential schools and we are having a hard time trying to revitalize our language and our culture. We don’t have the funding, we don’t have the money to do it.

He says he would like to see money to support an apology, which could be used to create immersion schools where Indigenous children could learn their language and culture.

“These young people, they don’t know what their identity is, they don’t know who they are, they hear the name Indian, they hear the word Aborigninal, Native – or whatever you want to call it – they don’t know not who they are,” he said. “They don’t have anything to recognize each other, the language is gone and we have to bring that back and we have to start with the children when they’re born.”

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Pitawanakwat says indigenous people traditionally didn’t care about money, but now it’s the only way to do anything. “For them (governments) it’s nothing — for us it’s a way to restore our language and revitalize our culture. To them money is nothing, they see it every day and they earn it every day – to my people we don’t have that.

Because of his job, Pitawanakwat says he wants to reserve most of his judgment until the end of the visit, but he doesn’t expect action to come from the apology. “It’s just a word unless you take action and know this trip, coming here is not action.”

Alberta Premier Jason Kenny said in a statement that the legacy of residential schools requires both expressions of remorse and concrete action.

“The visit of Pope Francis is at once, and the province of Alberta is proud to host him,” the premier said. “Let this be an opportunity for both truth and reconciliation, to which the government and people of Alberta are committed.