Underneath unsettled skies, watching from within the arbour which he helped design with his own hands, Twain Buffalo listened to Pope Francis ask forgiveness July 25 in Maskwacis for the Catholic Church’s role in Canada’s Indian Residential School system.
Buffalo is a proud survivor of the Ermineskin Indian Residential School where he spent 10 years of his life after being forced away from his parents at age six.
He attended the school until he was 15-years-old, witnessing abuse and destruction of his culture within the walls of the institution.
“It became normal, the way of life as I experienced it,” Buffalo says. “If you were bad you got whipped. You spoke your own language you got whipped. You had to be careful. You had to walk softly.”
Monday Buffalo watched on with former classmates and community members deeply impacted by generational trauma as Pope Francis prayed over the former Ermineskin residential school site and graves at the Ermineskin Cemetery.
Although not all graves in the cemetery belong to those lost to the local residential school it’s known in the community that some certainly do.
Last autumn the Four Nations of Maskwacis began searching for unmarked graves at the school site using ground-penetrating radar following the discovery of unmarked graves of hundreds of Indigenous children across Canada. The findings of the search in Ermineskin have not been released yet.
Following his visit to the former residential school, the Pope delivered an apology inside the arbour — something that was long-awaited and anticipated within the community and beyond.
“There was pain there and there still is pain there,” says Buffalo.
He says that while he has found forgiveness, he still carries trauma that will never truly go away.
“Ten years of my life that I lost there — nothing can ever replace that.”
A carpenter and construction project manager by trade, Buffalo not only built over 700 homes in Maskwacis, but he also helped design the arbour in Maskwa Park which the crowds gathered in for the visit.
He says that it was some of the knowledge he acquired through residential schools that helped him find success in his career. However, there are things that he will never get back from his lost childhood.
“It never really allowed me to be the Indian I wanted to be,” he says. “When I came to residential school I spoke nothing but Cree, when I walked out I spoke nothing but English. The culture that I had as a young person and the values we had at that time are long gone now.”
He says that re-adapting to life outside of the residential school was an upward climb. Losing his language and culture when he was in the residential school system is something that he continues to struggle with today.
Buffalo says he knows he will never be able to completely get it all back and that there is knowledge and language that will be lost to him forever.
He states that the Ermineskin residential school impacted not just the students and survivors who continue to live in Maskwacis, but the community as a whole generations later.
He says that in the past few decades the amount of alcohol and substance abuse and gang affiliation has grown in the area, a lot of which he believes stems from generational trauma as well as a cultural shift as a result of the loss of traditional culture and values that he witnessed as a child.
Buffalo says that he doubts he will see the day in person when reconciliation has been reached.
“I will be long dead before reconciliation ever occurs.”
He says that to this point in his life he accepts the work the church is doing towards reconciliation, however, just as trauma lasts generations, it will take generations for true healing and reconciliation to come about.
While many like Buffalo accepted the Pope’s apology there is still a great demand for action to follow from the church to ensure what was said in Maskwacis is not just hollow promises to Canada’s Indigenous Peoples and survivors.
Buffalo says for many in his community this apology is momentous, however for him, “I forgave them a long time ago. I accept his apology.”
For support and crisis intervention for Indigenous Peoples living in Canada, call the Hope for Wellness Help Line at 1-855-242-3310 or visit hopeforwellness.ca.