Indigenous Residential School Survivors Recall Stories of Abuse Following Pope Francis' Visit

"We had numbers on our clothing," survivor Evelyn Korkmaz recalled of her time at St. Anne's Indian Residential School in Fort Albany, Canada.

Following Pope Francis’ week-long tour in Canada, during which he went from city to city apologizing for the atrocities of the Catholic Church-backed residential school system forced upon Indigenous children until the late 1990s, survivors are once again speaking up, and sharing their horrific experience. 

“I spent four years at St. Anne’s residential school, and they were the worst years of my life,” survivor Evelyn Korkmaz told Anadolu News. 

Korkmaz, now in her 60s, grew up in Fort Albany, an isolated Cree reservation in Northeastern Ontario.  At 10 years old, she began attending St. Anne, a residential school now known as one of the most horrific across the country.

“There was an electric chair at St. Anne’s,” she told CTV News

She said the horrors began on the first day, where students were forced to cut their hair and dress in a uniform. “We had numbers on our clothing, rather than calling me Evelyn,” she said.

The winters were especially cold. Average Fort Albany temperatures can drop down to -7°f in January and February, and Korkmaz said there hadn’t been any heating at the school.

“I don't know why it would be very cold in there,” she said. “Maybe they couldn't afford the heating. I'm not sure, but, we had small blankets. It wasn't very thick, you know? So you just cuddled up, tried to stay warm, keep active.”

Later on, she witnessed her young classmates being taken away by priests and nuns.

“Sometimes I would see a girl being taken from the line, or a boy taken from the line,” Korkmaz recalled. “I thought they were being bad, because you weren’t allowed to talk in the line-up.”

She said she noticed her classmates being taken away in the middle of the night.

“In the middle of the night, a girl or boy would be taken from their bed and taken down the hallway somewhere in the school,” Korkmaz said. “In the morning, you would see a little candy on their night table.”

She realized in her adulthood that those children were being raped.

“I didn’t know that as a child,” she said “You don’t think that way as a child.” 

Pitta Irniq, who attended Turquetil Hall in Canada’s far north as a child, told Inside Edition Digital in an interview last year that he and other Inuit children experienced and witnessed similar abuses.

“Many, many of us were sexually abused by the Grey nuns, by the brothers, by the Roman Catholic priest,” Irniq said, adding that many of them survived by agreeing to their requests. 

He recalled being severely punished for speaking his language, Inuktitut. “[The teacher] motioned for me to come to the front of the class,” Irniq said. “And she hit me so hard with the ruler and said, ‘Don’t ever let me hear you speak that language again in this classroom.’”

The Government of Canada has admitted that the residential school program was meant to be a form of cultural genocide. Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper called the policy a way “to kill the Indian in the child," based on the idea that “Aboriginal cultures and spiritual beliefs were inferior and unequal,” in a formal apology delivered in 2008 to all survivors.

While the Government of Canada has issued several national apologies alongside financial compensation packages to survivors over the years, Pope Francis’ visit last month was the first time the Catholic Church has apologized for its role in the residential school system.

Korkmaz called the apology too little too late.

“I wasn't happy with his apologies because you didn't take ownership or accountability of what you, the church has done,” she told Anadolu News. 

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