JOURNEY TO JUSTICE

Bob McKeon

April 28, 2014

It is now almost a month past the Edmonton national event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

This was an historic event involving thousands of former students who attended Indian residential schools, members of their families, representatives of the churches who administered the schools, and many other aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians from all across Canada.

Many in the Catholic and ecumenical Christian communities were active in preparations for the TRC over the past year. There were a series of ecumenical workshops held in the Edmonton region. Several Catholic parishes hosted educational sessions.

CWL members joined with ecumenical partners in the creation of hundreds of homemade prayer shawls and thousands of cupcakes for the TRC birthday party. Catholic schools, colleges and St. Joseph Seminary held preparatory classes and educational sessions.

BISHOPS' STATEMENT

A month before the Edmonton TRC event, the Alberta-NWT bishops published a joint statement inviting all Catholics to attend the TRC event, and apologized for the pain, suffering and abuse in the Catholic Indian residential schools in Alberta. Special prayers were said in many parishes across the archdiocese for the success of the TRC.

These preparations helped Catholics prepare to participate in the Edmonton TRC event itself. The TRC was an extraordinary transformative, educational and spiritual event for those who participated.

About 80 Catholic volunteers assisted in the Church archives area, representing the Church in one-to-one listening conversations and Church listening circles with former residential school students and their family members. Many more attended the TRC public sessions over the four days.

The TRC provided a special time for listening to the experiences of aboriginal people. Many spoke of childhood experiences of pain and suffering associated with their time at residential schools, and later times of struggle and alienation as adults.

However, many also spoke of healing and working towards reconciliation. All at the TRC experienced prayers, rituals and teachings rooted in aboriginal spirituality throughout the TRC event.

I think many of us who are non-aboriginal who were involved in the TRC are in a new place in our relationship with aboriginal peoples. We may see our own lives and those of our aboriginal neighbours with new eyes.

A HUMAN FACE

For me, much of what I had read about previously took on a personal human face. I heard one woman, whose mother attended residential school, speak of her experience as a sex trade worker a couple blocks from my home in downtown Edmonton at a time when my daughters were still at home as teenagers.

I was surprised when some of my co-workers, who I had known for years, spoke of their own aboriginal background and the importance of the TRC for them and their relatives. Many who attended the TRC can tell similar stories.

This is also a new historic moment and opportunity for the Catholic Church in Edmonton and Alberta. While the TRC has challenged each of us individually, it is also something that many Church members, at all levels of the Church, have experienced together.

RISK OF FORGETTING

There is a risk that as the weeks and months follow from the TRC experience, we will forget what happened and lose this historic opportunity. In the conversations I have been part of since the TRC, the question inevitably is raised – where do we go from here.

The mandate of the TRC will end in little more than a year with the publication of a final report and the establishment of an ongoing archive and documentation centre.

Conversations about what happens next need to take place in our Church and in the wider community – in the archbishop's office, at our parish meetings, in our community associations and across our kitchen tables.

A CAUTIONARY WORD

At one recent Church meeting I attended, there was a real push for the creation of programs for immediate action. An aboriginal woman who was present spoke a cautionary word – that meaningful action, especially if initiated by non-aboriginal people, can come only after spending time building relationships and listening.

Surely the TRC experience has taught us this much. So maybe one important starting point is to build on the conversations and deepen the relationships we established before and during the time of the TRC.

(Bob McKeon: sjustice@caedm.ca)