Layer-by-Layer Healing: Indigenous Counselors Offer Support During Pope’s Visit While Coping With Their Own Trauma


The ancients held their heads in their hands. Tears streamed down the faces of the spectators. Some passed out, partly from the heat, partly from the emotion.

Others were angry. Still others have found hope.

Pope Francis’ visit this week resurfaced deep-seated trauma for many Indigenous peoples and helped bring closure to others.

Among the gathered masses were advisers tasked with offering support to those in need. Some of them had endured residential schools themselves.

They shared with the star how they supported each other during the week’s events, even dealing with their own emotions.

“It’s like a scab,” said Wendy English, a support worker with Native Counseling Services of Alberta. “You have to heal it layer by layer.

English is a residential school survivor (“I don’t like to say survivor,” she says. “I don’t want to be a victim. I want to be a victor”). She and her 12 siblings were apprehended in connection with the Sixties Scoop; she faced the murder of her granddaughter and carries multiple other traumas.

“Sometimes when the triggers come back, it’s like the scab comes back. You have to constantly deal with it. »

English originally didn’t want to work at papal events because of her anger with the Catholic Church, but when asked to provide support, she said, she felt compelled.

English listened to onlookers cry, gave them water and helped them with deep breathing exercises.

When it was over, she confided in her own friends, crying and letting her feelings out.

“It feels good, just to be able to cry and not hold back,” she said. “We had a lot of support.”

For some, the events offered closure, English said, while for others they opened wounds. Personally, she still needs time to assimilate her feelings.

“For me and for many others who are feeling all this pain and anger resurfacingI have to figure out what I want to do with those feelings, because I don’t want to hold on to them,” she said.

Elder Delphine Ballantyne had mixed feelings ahead of the Pope’s arrival and spent time reflecting on her own emotions to prepare. She was a residential school “thriving” who turned to alcohol before learning that to move forward, she needed to forgive herself.

It’s a challenge that many people with trauma face, said Ballantyne, a cultural support worker with Native Counseling Services of Alberta. She said many people blamed themselves for the abuse they faced. But she found hope in the visit.

On the day of the apology, when chef Wilton Littlechild presented Pope Francis with a traditional headdress, Ballantyne saw the chef’s legs shaking. He looked frail, just like the pope. She thought of how the pope had traveled a long way despite health issues to be there.

“I was like, ‘These two gentlemen want reconciliation,'” Ballantyne said.

Although she didn’t completely accept the Pope’s apology, she sensed the sincerity in his voice.

She saw the emotions rise on the day of the apology. Support workers gave the elders water, food and blankets. But it was the young people who marked her.

In Maskwacis, Ballantyne saw an older woman get up and start walking slowly towards the toilet. Ballantyne started going to help her when a little boy of about 10 stood up and asked, “Kokum, what are you doing?” using a Cree word meaning “grandmother”. He rushed to help her.

The incident moved Ballantyne, showing her positivity amid anger and trauma.

“Love is still thriving with children today,” she said.

The pope’s visit was not an event, but the start of a process, said Marlene Orr, CEO of Native Counseling Services of Alberta.

“The real work with our communities to address this trauma is just beginning,” she said. Orr hopes local Catholic groups will support Indigenous organizations to continue the healing work.

Orr’s counseling service kicked off a series of events on Thursday to encourage dialogue in communities across Alberta to help people heal.

She said she appreciates her staff who put aside their own feelings to support others.

“The residential school survivors who did this are true examples of people on the mend,” she said.

It’s too early to tell whether the week’s events were helpful or harmful, Orr added.

“There are a lot of conflicting emotions,” she said. “Our employees are processing. »

The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of a residential school experience. Support is available at 1-866-925-4419.


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