Words of Penitence
The pope, Indigenous Canadians, and the residential school system


In the days leading up to Pope Francis’ 2022 visit to Canada, Maggie Putulik felt slightly nervous. And who wouldn’t be, in her shoes? After all, she was going to be interpreting for the man himself.

“I thought I would be a nervous wreck interpreting for the pope,” she said. “But on the contrary, I was extremely calm and very much at peace.”

Putulik can’t say for sure why she was so calm in the moment, but she certainly surprised herself with how at ease she felt interpreting for the pope in front of Inuit leaders and ministers for the federal government.

In July 2022, the pope spent about a week in the country, traveling to various cities and towns in what he called a “penitential pilgrimage,” apologizing on behalf of the Catholic Church for its role in the country’s residential school system. Alongside a team of more than two dozen interpreters, Putulik worked with the Canadian Translation Bureau to ensure that Canadians from a diverse range of linguistic backgrounds would be able to understand the pope’s message as it was broadcast across the country.

It was a monumental visit that required swift yet careful preparation from the Translation Bureau to ensure that as many Canadians as possible could understand his message.

Although Putulik had interpreted for other major figures, she says interpreting for the pope felt different.

“This was the pope coming to Canada to apologize to residential school survivors on behalf of the Catholic Church,” she said. “It was different because he acknowledged the wrongdoings of the Church, and for him to come here at this age, in his health condition, to come face to face with survivors — that was a very powerful and meaningful moment.”

Putulik, who has family members that survived the residential school system, said it was a full-circle moment for her to be able to interpret the pope’s apology to the Indigenous people of Canada. She interpreted the pope’s speech into the Inuit language — one of the Indigenous Canadian languages that was banned from being spoken in the residential schools.

Figure 1: Pope Francis reads an address with Indigenous leaders during his penitential pilgrimage in Canada.

Although Pope Francis himself wasn’t involved in the Canadian residential school system, the Roman Catholic Church played a large role in operating residential schools throughout the country.

The residential school system was a network of boarding schools for Indigenous Canadians funded by the nation’s government and run primarily by Christian churches throughout Canada. But as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada noted in a report on the conditions of the schools, the residential school system was little more than a thinly veiled means of cultural erasure and oppression.

“Canada’s residential school system for Aboriginal children was an education system in name only for much of its existence,” the preface to the 2015 report reads. “These residential schools were created for the purpose of separating Aboriginal children from their families, in order to minimize and weaken family ties and cultural linkages, and to indoctrinate children into a new culture — the culture of the legally dominant Euro-Christian Canadian society.”

As in other parts of the Americas, colonial forces in Canada subjected — often by force — more than 150,000 Indigenous people to undergo Christian education. Among other goals, this education served to erase their traditional religious practices and ancestral languages. More than 130 residential schools operated throughout the country from the 19th century, all the way through 1997 — about three-quarters of these institutions were run by the Catholic Church, though churches from other Christian denominations were also involved in the maintenance of residential schools.

Indigenous children were subject to harsh conditions — thousands of children died of disease and neglect, only to then be buried in unregistered gravesites — but it wasn’t until relatively recently that people outside of the system began paying attention to the abuses that they suffered.

Figure 2: Indigenous Canadians attend an event staged for Pope Francis’ travels in the country.

In 2006, roughly a decade after the last residential school in the country closed its doors, nearly 90,000 survivors of the school system settled a high-profile class-action lawsuit against the government of Canada, leading to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA). The IRSSA, in turn, called for the formation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, which soon began releasing documents, data, and reports on the experiences of the Indigenous children who attended the schools.

In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI met with a small group of survivors to express his sorrow for the neglect that they suffered in the residential schools. This is widely considered the first time that the Church apologized for its role in the Canadian residential school system — but it wouldn’t be the last.

Pope Francis announced his intentions to embark on a “pilgrimage of healing and reconciliation” throughout Canada in October 2021, just a few months after the identification of 215 possible graves on the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School — at one point the largest residential school in the country — in British Columbia. But although he’d announced his visit a little more than half a year before he actually set foot in Canada, the plans for his visit remained fairly uncertain in the following months.

Andréanne Jobin, who organized the logistics behind much of the language services for the pope’s visit, said the Translation Bureau typically has about a year to a year and a half to prepare themselves for these kinds of visits. But for security and health reasons, they couldn’t confirm the pope’s visit to Canada until just two months in advance, requiring Jobin and her team to condense much of the necessary planning work into a much shorter time frame.

Figure 3: Canadian and Vatican officials meet during Pope Francis’ penitential tour of the country.

According to Jobin, securing venues and finding interpreters with such a short turnaround were two of the biggest challenges that they faced. Although the Translation Bureau has staff interpreters who work in Canada’s official languages and a handful of foreign languages, Jobin says they had to contract freelance interpreters for the Indigenous languages.

They had to find quite a few Indigenous-language interpreters: In total, the team provided interpreting services in 12 different Indigenous languages, plus American Sign Language (ASL), English, French, Spanish, and Quebecois Sign Language (LSQ, from the French).

Although Pope Francis traveled all across the country, most of the interpreters traveled to Ottawa and stayed there, working together out of a studio there. Jobin said that many of the Indigenous interpreters they contacted for freelance services were unavailable on such short notice, or simply wanted to remain close to family and the rest of their community during the pope’s visit.

“Finally, we were able to offer 12 languages, but it was a lot of work — a lot of phone calls, and a lot of ‘Okay, this language is not available anymore because there are only two interpreters in that language,’” she said. In that case, she and her team set out to identify interpreters of other Indigenous languages spoken within the same region, as they wanted to ensure that language services were available in languages spoken across a wide geographical area.

Meanwhile, Pope Francis’ primary language — Spanish — also presented an interesting challenge. Since few of the interpreters working with the Translation Bureau speak Spanish (Jobin says most work in either French or English, in addition to another language), the bureau had to rely on relay interpretation for many language pairs — for example, Spanish into English followed by English into Inuit or English into ASL. Having multiple layers of relay interpretation was something new for Clare Gallant, who provided ASL interpretation during the pope’s visit.

“As an ASL interpreter, I’m familiar with and used to relying on a relay interpreter — so when an individual is speaking French, I listen to the official language interpretation and interpret from English to ASL,” Gallant said. “I’ve never had to do that with somebody who is interpreting from Spanish to English or from Spanish to French and then to English and then to me — [that process] of multiple steps of relay was a new experience.”

Gallant wasn’t phased by the fact that she was interpreting for such a historic visit — “To me, the work doesn’t change, regardless of who I’m interpreting for. It could have been the pope, or it could have been my next-door neighbor. My process is the same,” she said.

But there were special considerations she and the other sign language interpreters had to take into account with regard to certain religious terminology or idiomatic expressions. She and the other sign language interpreters on the team met with a deaf priest who conducts mass in ASL to brief them on certain religious vocabulary. She pointed out that English words like “reconciliation,” “pilgrimage,” and “mystery” have specific meanings in a religious context that are tricky to convey in ASL, either because they don’t have a standard sign or because their meaning is a bit vague.

For Putulik, the experience of interpreting for the pope was particularly heart-rending — she said she believes that reconciliation for the Church’s involvement in the residential school system truly began with Pope Francis’ visit to Canada. She was especially moved when she witnessed an Inuit survivor of the residential school system react to the pope’s entrance.

“She stood up, and she started crying … and this is what she said: ‘Look at this humble old human being who is coming to apologize to us when he did no atrocities to us. How humble can one human being be to travel so far to come and meet with us to apologize for things he did not do to us?’” Putulik recalled. “That was extremely powerful.”

Looking back on her experience interpreting for Pope Francis, Putulik summed up her thoughts on the experience rather succinctly: “It was an honor in the highest degree,” Putulik said. “I was part of history in the making.”

Andrew Warner  is assistant editor and staff writer for MultiLingual Media.



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