We’koqma’q Elder Phyllis Googoo said when she shook hands with Pope Francis she could feel that he would be the Pope to apologize.
April 13, 2022
-by April MacDonald
Phyllis Googoo was just four years old when she was taken to the Shubenacadie Residential School.
Speaking with her on Monday afternoon, she said that when she was four her parents had just separated and the church felt that for that reason she and her older brother were “good candidates” for the Residential School.
Phyllis Googoo was kept at that school for a decade before she was able to go home; she left practically a toddler and returned as a teenager.
At the “school” she secretly spoke Mi’kmaq to her native brothers and sisters and made friends with the ladybugs that she found in the field outside the school. She also spoke her “forbidden” language to the ladybugs, and loved and nurtured them in an attempt to replace the terrible loss of her family.
It wasn’t until many years later that she fully realized the meaning behind the love she felt for the ladybugs. She knew they reminded her of her grandfather’s backyard, but it wasn’t until she was grown that she understood that the only way she could fill the aching hole deep inside her was to care for something smaller than she was.
She nurtured them as she should have been nurtured, protected, and loved by her mother.
She told The Oran that there wasn’t a day that went by that she didn’t wait and hope and pray that that her mother or someone would come and pick her up and take her home.
Googoo is from We’koqma’q First Nation, which is a few hundred kilometres from Shubenacadie – the only residential school in the Maritimes.
The We’koqma’q Elder, who is now in her 70s, was asked to be part of the delegation charged with asking Pope Francis for an official apology for the what the Catholic church did to Indigenous people in this country – for their pain, their suffering, for the abuse they endured and for the trauma that has followed them and their families every day since.
The delegation wanted the Catholic church to finally be accountable and to acknowledge their responsibility in willfully enacting genocide against the Indigenous people of this country.
“It was important that we get an apology,” said Googoo.
“Most of us are growing old and many of the Elders who attended these schools are dying or have died. There are not that many of us left,” explained Googoo.
“We went through a lot of hard times, I know what I went through…and it was 10 years of my life,” she added.
Asking her what her expectations were, she said that before leaving she wasn’t sure.
“Three years ago another group went and it was a different Pope and they did not get what they were seeking,” said Googoo.
She added that this time around more horrific information had come to light – the unmarked graves of so many Indigenous children at countless Residential Schools across this country.
“We talked to him about our experiences and we talked to him about the unmarked graves,” said Googoo. “He actually listened to us and seemed very humble. I knew when I looked at him in his eyes that he would be the one to apologize.”
Googoo had a private audience with Pope Francis, just she and two others, all of whom are survivors of Residential Schools.
“In the room there were 12 of us altogether, with youth, the survivors, the camera people, and Pope Francis,” said Googoo.
She said that you could feel that he was a nice person by the way he addressed them, how he listened to their stories and how he looked at them.
The We’koqma’q Elder said that she talked about how these schools impacted their lives, “he really listened and listened well and when I finished it was myself, [representing Nova Scotia], Marlene Cloud, [representing Ontario], and Mary Anne Daywalker, [representing Saskatchewan].”
“When we finished our parts he shook our hands and held it so hard and looked at our faces, I didn’t know but felt in my heart that he would be the Pope that would apologize,” explained Googoo.
She said that she felt that the discovery of the unmarked graves made a huge impact on him.
“Mary Anne Daywalker gifted him these beautiful moccasins, which he held in his hands the whole time we were with him. We gave him a basket made by survivor Margaret Peltier, it is covered in beautiful symbols and has the Mi’kmaw flag on the front,” said Googoo.
She said she could tell that this Pope was different from the last.
The next meeting with Pope Francis was with the larger group of more than 30 First Nations people, including, Métis or Inuk (Inuit) and Mi’kmaw.
“The Pope read to us what he thought of our meeting in his language, Italian, and we were given a pamphlet of what he was saying in English. When I read ‘sorry’ I had such a lump in my throat,” she explained.
“You know a lot of our generation are affected by this and even the young students who attend the [We’koqma’q] school today still feel the effects from their grandparents and parents and what these schools did to us,” said Googoo.
Elder Phyllis Googoo works at the We’koqma’q School as an Elder Resident.
“I teach Mi’kmaw to the teachers and I support them to carry on the language for the children…I guess it’s ironic the way things turned out,’ she said.
She said that they were supposed to have the meeting with the Pope back in December but that it was cancelled due to the pandemic.
“This time around I felt more ready to do it. So many survivors have deep depression, rage, anger, and many of my people live with spiritual confusion from the trauma they lived through…I try to help them to express their realities in healthy and creative ways,” said Googoo.
“It has affected each and every descendant, our art, our culture, and the loss of our language,” she explained.
“About only one third of the people at the school can speak the language,” she added.
“Our language and culture go hand-in-hand. You must understand the history of our people,” she closed.
Googoo said that she will be going as part of the delegation to meet with Pope Francis when he comes to Canada.
The Oran, the county and the country thanks you Elder Phyllis Googoo, and all the survivors, for telling us your story so that we all may know better and be better to one another
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