Apiksituaqn. The Mi’kmaw word for forgiveness. Reconciliation.
As I walk off the dock on Mniku, also called Chapel Island, a group of Mi’kmaw kids run by, laughing. The afternoon sun beats down and the breeze off the Bras d’Or Lake is welcome.
The Saint Anne’s pilgrimage to this small island in the Potlotek First Nation in Unama’ki (Cape Breton) is the longest-running continuous mission in Canada.
Small boats ferry everyone across the short distance to Mniku for the annual Sunday mass. Hundreds of people are here: a smaller crowd than in years past, when up to 6,000 L’nu’k would come from all over Mi’kma’ki.
“We don't worry about people not coming. We know,” says Antle Denny, a Kji-Keptin on the Mi’kmaw Grand Council, or Santé Mawiómi. “People are hurting.”
This year, the gathering unfolded in the wake of Pope Francis’ visit to Canada and his apology, prompted by the recovery of unmarked graves of Indigenous children who died in residential schools.
How do Mi’kmaq reconcile this genocide with their relationship to the Catholic Church that stretches back over 400 years?
There’s no single answer for those who remain faithful or those who cut their long-standing ties. Or for survivors of Nova Scotia’s former Shubenacadie Indian Residential School.
Mniku is a national historic site. This annual gathering to celebrate the granmother of Jesus, the patron sain of the Mi'kmaq, dates back nearly three centuries. The Mi’kmaw connection to the church was as much about politics and trade as it was about converting to Christianity when Membertou, a Mi’kmaw leader, was baptized by the Jesuit missionaries in 1610.
How do Mi’kmaq reconcile the legacy of residential schools with their relationship to the Catholic Church?
“Grand Chief Membertou made an alliance with the Holy See,” says Denny. “And that's what this is. An alliance.”
Denny invited Pope Francis to visit the Mi’kmaq — as a sovereign nation and an ally. But the closest stop on the papal visit was Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, Que.
Denny decided not to go.
He says his role as Kji-Keptin (Grand Captain) requires him to be respectful and honourable as he represents his people and he wasn’t sure he could do that, given all he’s heard from survivors.
“We did not ask for an apology because in our culture, with our values, when you have done wrong to somebody, you apologize. You don't need to be told,” says Denny. “There are steps toward reconciling, and a forced apology isn’t one of them.”
Colourful ribbon skirts and shirts dot the crowd gathered in front of the chapel on Mniku. Mi’kmaw culture infuses this Catholic celebration. The service starts with a hymn in Mi’kmaw.
In a fringed robe, Tom Sylliboy stands beside the priest. He’s a member of the Grand Council and made history in 2019 as the first Mi’kmaw deacon.
Sylliboy has come to Mniku every year of his 62 years.
“Before, I would go to church, and as I was listening to the priests, I was like, OK, what did he really say?” says Sylliboy, whose first language is Mi’kmaw. “So, when I became a deacon, I said I'm going to try to break down this scripture and speak Mi’kmaw. You have elderly people who understand more of what I’m talking about.”
During the mass, the priest repeats the papal apology and says, “We want to walk together, to pray together so the injustice of the past can lead to healing.”
“Think about me as clergy, it's hard. These were my people. Abused,” says Sylliboy, in an interview before the service. “Yeah, I had a hard time with it. Because I wear a collar, what to do with it, you know?”
He recounts what a residential school survivor once told him. “It wasn't God that abused us. It was men. I'll stick with that.”
An hour away, members of the Paqtnkek First Nation celebrate the feast of St. Anne at a mission church built by the Mi’kmaq in 1867.
The service takes place outside — a COVID precaution. Kids run around with freezies. Elders are given shade and seating under a tent. Dozens of people have shown up, far fewer than previous years.
“This holiday we’re celebrating, it's existed for a few centuries. So, it's rooted and it's become a main tradition. But really, it's still in its infancy,” says Trevor Gould, a language program developer in Paqtnkek. “When you think about the time that my people lived here, we've been here for 13,500 years and counting.
“So, what about those traditions and ceremonies? They've been rooted here on the land for thousands of years. But we just accept this new way of praying, and it's changed our lifestyle so much.”
Gould grew up following his father, a Grand Council member, to funerals and watching him act as spiritual support for other Mi’kmaq in need.
Gould himself stopped going to church as a teenager. He had questions for the church about residential schools.
“That little magic question, you know, why did God do this? Why did God let this happen to children? All the priest told me to do was go say three Hail Marys and an Our Father and reflect on it,” says Gould.
“When it came to traditional ceremony, I was always getting the answers. I was getting it straight. This is why we do this. This is why we pray.”
As he makes his way around to chat with band members and friends, even Gould seems nostalgic for how this Catholic holiday used to be. The field filled with tents and campers. A dunk tank and mock jail. It brought the community together.
Now, many Mi’kmaq follow the powwow trail as it winds through Mi’kma’ki, including Gould.
“Can you go to powwows and go to church? Can you be traditional and also Catholic?” I ask.
“I don't think it's incompatible because as L'nu’k (Mi’kmaq), even if you believe or not, you have to some way, somehow live in both worlds,” says Gould.
“My dad was one of those that walked both roads very carefully,” he says. “A lot of those elders and a lot of those people who held on to those traditions, passed away. And the influence and the focus on it [religion] that used to be here is fading away.
“This generation now that grew up in the ‘90s and the 2000s, they're the ones that have the opportunity to let go if they want.”
Most weekends throughout the summer, Gould does more than follow the powwow trail. He and his friend Michael R. Denny are often MCs and organizers.
When I arrive at the Annapolis First Nation powwow, I’m greeted by the tinkling sound of jingle dress dancers, Gould’s booming voice over the loudspeaker and Denny’s group, Stoney Bear Singers, at the drum.
Denny’s father was a residential school survivor. His mother, a devout Catholic.
“It is quite complex, that relationship,” says Denny. “I don't understand why, knowing full well how much the damage the church has done, that with all these efforts around healing, how the churches still play a big part in that.”
For Denny, decolonizing is incompatible with religion. At age 14, he made the difficult choice to trade in going to church for traditional ceremony.
“My mother was very upset with me. I was almost thrown out of the house,” says Denny.
For 10 years, he was a support worker for residential school survivors with Eskasoni Mental Health Services.
“I’ve seen it all,” he says. “I've stayed up late with survivors on the phone all night.”
When an Indigenous delegation from Canada visited the pope at the Vatican last March, Denny was there to provide cultural support to survivors.
I remember being struck by a Facebook livestream of Denny and others singing and drumming in St. Peter’s Square in Rome.
“To me, it was powerful to show that, hey, I'm singing the songs,” he says. “They tried to kill that, they tried to stop that. But I'm here on their turf, showing the Pope and the cardinals and whoever was there, that we are still strong. We are still here.”
Georgina Doucette is a Mi’kmaw Elder and residential school survivor from the Eskasoni First Nation.
In her search for healing, powwows provided.
“We all got into our culture trying to take back our lives — what we lost. Our language, our culture and our ceremonies,” says Doucette.
She says that long, 400-year history with the Catholic Church is hard to shake and recalls the pushback against those early powwows in Eskasoni.
“It didn't go over very well that first year,” says Doucette. “But we did something right. People started to accept themselves for who they were. Now it's bigger than ever.”
Doucette only goes to church now when she needs to. Baptisms. Funerals.
“I’m more into my traditional ways than how I was raised in the Catholic Church,” says Doucette. “I'm trying to find me as a person as for who I am and what was taken from me in how I was raised. I was raised in fear.
“We carry the scars. It's even hard for me to speak on this because I have so many mixed feelings.”
Doucette went with a group of survivors to see Pope Francis perform mass at Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré on July 28.
Unfortunately, tight security delayed the group and they never made it inside the church. Doucette watched Pope Francis on big screens outside.
“Deep down, it's like my journey wasn’t complete if I wasn’t able to see him closeup, you know what I mean? I wanted to see him face to face. It was not the same.”
But Doucette says she’s satisfied with the work she and other survivors have done to reclaim their culture and that the tension between church-going Mi’kmaq and traditionalists is fading.
“The Creator is for everyone,” she says. “And one thing we forget sometimes is we're all here for a reason and we're all Mi’kmaq. I try not to discriminate because I lived it. I lived in that world of discrimination.”
The sun is low in the sky on Mniku. I make my way to one of the small cabins clustered along the shore. There’s no running water or electricity here on the island. The hum of generators is constant.
I stop in to visit Dawn Stevens and her mother, Gibbet, from Eskasoni. The two have been here with family for several days.
“My grandmother had her cabin in this exact spot,” says Dawn. “I've been here every year. I only missed two and I'll be 50 this year. The sense of community and pride — that's why I come here year after year.”
We sit at their kitchen table for a long time, and they tell me about the old days on Mniku. How Gibbet’s father and uncles went to residential school. She says she understands why some people turn away from the church. We talk about Gibbet’s love of powwows and how she wore traditional Mi’kmaw regalia way before it was cool.
“You can still be traditional and be Catholic,” says Gibbet.
“It's like a personal faith or spirituality because the responsibility is always on you. It's your life, you know?” says Dawn. “Whether it's God or Kisu’lkw, the Creator.”
The day before Sunday mass on Mniku, women wash the St. Anne statue. Dawn’s role in the ritual is to dress the statue in regalia.
“This is on our terms, by our rules,” says Dawn. “The prayers are in Mi’kmaw. It's organized by us. So, it's inclusive and it's on our terms. So, it means so much more. And so that's why I think we all accepted it because it wasn't forced upon us.
“Everybody who is here chooses to be here, and everybody is so proud to be Mi’kmaq.”
In the end, it’s about gathering as a community. Mi’kmaq call it a mawiomi. For some, it happens here on Mniku. For others on the powwow trail. Some can do both. But there is a growing shift away from the church. And the papal apology is unlikely to stem that flow.