Action, not just words, will help heal wounds from residential school legacy

Antigonish Bishop Wayne Kirkpatrick

It appears some in the Catholic Church are finally starting to realize that good deeds, and not just words, can help heal the deep wounds rendered by the Indian Residential School system.

On Sept. 24, following the annual meeting of Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB), the plenary issued an “unequivocal apology” for the church’s role in the residential school system and the suffering of Indigenous Peoples in Canada.

The organization said many Catholic religious communities and dioceses participated in this system, which led to the suppression of Indigenous languages, culture and spirituality, and failed to respect the rich history, traditions and wisdom of Indigenous people.

The Bishops of Canada then announced on Sept. 27, they are making a nation-wide collective financial commitment to support healing and reconciliation initiatives for residential school survivors, their families, and their communities.

With a target of $30 million, this will include initiatives in every region of the country and be achieved at the local level, with parishes across Canada being encouraged to participate and amplify the effort.

Bishop Raymond Poisson, president of the CCCB, said in a release that when the group came together over the summer, there was “universal consensus” that the church needs to tangibly address the suffering experienced.

Comprised of local diocesan initiatives, the bishops said this effort will help support programs and initiatives dedicated to improving the lives of residential school survivors and their communities. They are pledging to undertake fundraising in each region of the country.

The bishops invited Indigenous Peoples, especially the survivors of residential schools, to work with them in providing education for clergy, consecrated men and women, and lay faithful, on Indigenous cultures and spirituality.

Having heard the requests to engage Pope Francis in this reconciliation process, a delegation of Indigenous survivors, Elders and Knowledge keepers, and youth will meet with the Holy Father in Rome in December 2021.

The Bishop of Antigonish believes the apology and subsequent $30 million national pledge represents a stride towards healing and reconciliation with survivors and their families.

In a written statement, Bishop Wayne Kirkpatrick said no single step can eliminate this pain, but the church hopes those measures collectively, will position them toward a path of hope.

The bishop said the church will continue to listen to the experience of the Mi’kmaq in diocesan communities, especially to the survivors of residential schools.

Kirkpatrick indicated the church is fully committed to listening, learning and taking meaningful measures that can advance this healing journey. He hopes a collective apology will help advance the trusted collaboration between Indigenous leaders and the Bishops of Canada.

Kirkpatrick said bishops are “profoundly saddened” by the residential school legacy and acknowledged the “grave abuses” committed by members of the Catholic community, which included physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual, cultural, and sexual abuse.

There is also an acknowledgement by the bishops of the ongoing trauma and legacy of suffering that continues to this day.

During the next several months, Kirkpatrick suggested the diocese will be engaging church faithful and other individuals and communities in conversations on church and faith issues of importance to them.

Earlier this summer during the annual Mission to St. Anne, that saw thousands of people return to Potlotek First Nation and the sacred island Mniku as part of the five-day mission honouring the patron saint of the Mi’kmaq people, Kirkpatrick addressed the “great tragedy” of Indian Residential Schools in his remarks during the Sunday afternoon mass.

The bishop spoke of the need for a re-education for many within the church on the history and impact of residential schools.

In a pastoral letter dated July 30, Kirkpatrick said ongoing news of unmarked graves found on the sites of former Indian Residential Schools is “deeply troubling.”

This came just before National Day of Truth and Reconciliation, which was celebrated across the Strait area on Sept. 30.

This year, Canada marked the dark history of residential schools with a day to honour the lost children and the survivors of a shameful chapter of the country’s past.

The Indian Residential School system, in operation from 1930 until the last of 140 such facilities closed in the 1990s, was designed to strip Aboriginal children of their culture and their traditions. Children, some as young as three-years-old, were taken from their homes and families, by order of the government, and subjected to abuse and neglect at the hands of the people tasked with their care.

Since 2013, Aboriginal communities and supporters acknowledge Sept. 30 as Orange Shirt Day. Making the day a national day of reflection was one of the 94 calls to action identified by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015.

The day’s theme was inspired by the story of Phyllis Webstad, a residential school survivor from British Columbia. In recalling her first day at a residential school when she was six years old, Webstad spoke of wearing a new orange shirt she had proudly selected and the pain she felt when she was stripped of all her clothing, including her orange shirt. Her belongings were never returned to her.

Chief Annie Bernard-Daisley, of the We’koqma’q First Nation, encourages everyone to try and imagine the pain felt by the children as well as their families back home.

Pointing to an “awareness” taking place across the nation after the remains of more than 215 children were discovered on the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia, the chief said those little lives “had the potential to move on in this world.”

Bernard-Daisley says the support from community partners is all meaningful, whether it comes in the form of people wearing orange shirts, flags flying at half-mast in response to the discovery of unmarked graves, or reaching out to ask how to help. She also points to people displaying red dresses in their windows to raise awareness of missing and murdered Indigenous women, as well as organizations and businesses reaching out.

The chief said it “means a lot” to see support from non-Native communities because it is up to current and future generations to put measures in place to stop this from ever happening again.

It is good to see the Catholic Church taking a positive step in a long healing process, by not just apologizing and taking responsibility, but backing it up with vows of financial support.

Hopefully, what took place in other parts of the country, like Manitoba, where promises of financial assistance were not fulfilled, will not reoccur. Given the seriousness of the church’s tone and the fact this was done on a national level, it seems this will happen.

As well it should. This kind of financial boost can provide organizations, communities and individuals in need with the resources they deserve to start undoing this toxic legacy.

It will take time, and a consistent and long-term financial commitment, but it this legacy can eventually be undone, and become a part of a shared history to learn from.