Calvi Leon/Local Journalism Initiative
She’s never flown before, let alone met a pope.
For Marlene Cloud, 80, two big life events are converging in a bittersweet moment as the Southwestern Ontario woman prepares to join an Indigenous delegation to Rome to meet Pope Francis today and ask him to apologize for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in Canada’s residential school system.
“It’s the first time I’m ever going to be on a plane,” said Cloud, who lives on Kettle and Stony Point First Nation near Forest before heading to Rome. “I hope I don’t faint and get overwhelmed.”
Cloud is one of 13 delegates — residential school survivors, elders and youth from all provinces and territories — chosen by the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) for the audience with Pope Francis.
“It’s kind of unbelievable,” she said. “I still don’t believe this is happening.”
Indigenous leaders and groups have long called for a papal apology for the harm and intergenerational trauma inflicted by church-run residential schools on survivors and their families. No pope has ever apologized for the church’s role, but the pontiff has committed to meet with survivors and leaders, in Rome and here in Canada later this year.
“I hope that he apologizes and maybe, gives us (survivors) some money,” Cloud said.
The trip was first set for mid-December but postponed by the AFN, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Métis National Council and the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami due to the Omicron wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As the lone Ontario delegate, Cloud will represent residential school survivors across the province.
“So many have passed away, and they haven’t been able to share their stories, or in their lifetime, hear about having an apology,” she said.
While she’d welcome an apology, Cloud said she wants the Pope to understand it’s more than just a word.
“For him to make an apology, he has to understand what went on at those schools and what happened,” she said. “I don’t know if he does . . . It will be really hard for him to know what he’s apologizing for.”
Cloud recalled when she first set foot in the government- and Anglican-run Mohawk Institute Residential School near Brantford.
“We (kids) were taken up a flight of stairs,” she said.
Unsure where they were going, Cloud noticed sunlight streaming through a small window.
“The sun was shining, and it made me very happy,” she said. “I went to look out the window and see what I could, and someone hit me with a strap.”
She was six.
“That was my first introduction to the school,” said Cloud. “It was an experience of fear, terror.”
More than 150,000 Indigenous, Metis and Inuit children attended Canada’s church- and government-operated residential schools, intended to assimilate them into Canadian culture at the expense of their own. Mistreatment at the schools, detailed by the National Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report, included emotional, physical and sexual abuse. At least 4,100 children died at the schools.
That grim legacy has come under renewed scrutiny since the discovery last year of what are believed to be more than 200 unmarked graves at a former school site in British Columbia, and many more elsewhere, leading some First Nations to begin seeking other potential unmarked graves using ground-penetrating radar.
The Mohawk Institute, which Cloud attended, operated from the early 1830s until 1970 and was one of two residential schools in Southwestern Ontario. The other was the Mount Elgin Industrial School, located on what is now Chippewas of the Thames First Nation near London.
Cloud was at the Brantford-area school for about six years before she was taken to a London hospital with tuberculosis, an infectious respiratory disease that ran rampant in the residential school system, killing many.
“I was just lucky I didn’t die,” she said, noting her sister had come down with TB earlier. The school “sent her home, where she died.”
Eventually, Cloud returned to Kettle and Stony Point, where she would raise seven children. At 50, she enrolled in college and earned an early childhood education diploma.
Nearly 20 years ago, Cloud led a class-action lawsuit against the Mohawk Institute’s operators, including the federal government and the Anglican Diocese of Huron, for abuses suffered by former students.
The plaintiffs received $10,000 each, but Cloud said she believes the result “wasn’t as good as it should have been.”
But her work set a precedent for future cases and helped pave the way for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Cloud’s daughter pointed out.
“It made history,” said Joanna Cloud, who will join her mother and sister on the trip. “It set a legal precedent and made them become a part of history.”
Asked how she feels about flying to Europe with her daughters Saturday, Cloud didn’t hesitate.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” she said. “If they can’t be there, then I won’t be there.”
Crisis support for residential school survivors is available 24 hours day, seven days a week by calling toll free 1-866-925-4419
- London Free Press