In recent weeks, I have been in many conversations with people talking about the upcoming National Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings to take place March 27-30 at the Shaw Conference Centre in Edmonton.
This will be the last of the seven national events that have taken place across the country over the past three and a half years. It will be a large gathering involving thousands of aboriginal and non-aboriginal participants coming together over a four-day period to address the legacy of the Indian residential schools.
This event has special relevance for Alberta. Alberta had 25 residential schools, more than any other province. It also has special meaning for the Catholic community, since the majority of these schools were operated by Catholic entities.
There were two Catholic Indian residential schools within the present boundaries of the Archdiocese of Edmonton: Ermineskin at Hobbema and the Youville school on Mission Hill in St. Albert. Both of these schools operated over a period of several decades.
Since early June there has been a series of six community TRC hearings taking place across Alberta. The last of these finished last week in Calgary. I was able to attend the community hearings in Red Deer and Hobbema. I came away with striking memories from these events.
One of the last speakers at the Hobbema hearings was a local middle-aged aboriginal man who attended the Ermineskin school.
He told the TRC commissioners about a recent personal investigation he conducted, finding out what had happened to all his classmates who attended the Ermineskin residential school. He described, individual by individual, how a large majority of his classmates had died prematurely because of addictions, violence and illness.
I also attended a Church listening circle at Hobbema composed of several former students and representatives of the churches who operated the schools. These circles were small enough so that all the participants could speak and listen to each other directly.
One elderly aboriginal former student told of her experience of suffering and abuse at the Ermineskin school.
The next speaker was an elderly sister who had worked at the school and later at the local parish. She told of her story of growing up in Quebec and of her desire to serve aboriginal people in Western Canada. She spoke personal words of regret, sorrow and apology to the former student.
Following this sharing, the former student and the retired sister stood up and embraced and hugged. Everyone in the room was in tears. This was a powerful moment of reconciliation and a visible sign of new beginnings.
The Vancouver National TRC hearings were held in September. A month before the hearings, the B.C.-Yukon Catholic bishops issued a pastoral letter inviting all the Catholic faithful in the area to support the Vancouver TRC event through "prayers, volunteering and attendance."
The bishops named important issues; including abuse at the schools and breach of trust by Church officials. The bishops present clear words of regret and apology,
During the Vancouver TRC event, time was set aside for public "gestures of reconciliation." Several religious leaders from different faith communities participated.
Archbishop Michael Miller personally presented a statement entitled An Expression of Apology and Hope on behalf of the Archdiocese of Vancouver. He pledged on behalf of the Catholics of his archdiocese: "we recommit ourselves . . . to being heralds of hope and reconciliation – a process which demands patience, work for justice and mutual dialogue."
Another public gesture of reconciliation was made by three leadership representatives from congregations of women religious involved with the Indian residential schools. They promised the support of their members for the ongoing efforts of aboriginal peoples "to achieve justice in Canada including adequate housing, education, health care, social programs and land rights."
In four months, it will be Alberta's turn. It is crucial that there will be a strong Catholic presence when the TRC comes to Edmonton. It is important that all sectors of the Alberta Catholic community participate: clergy, religious and laity.
Mark the dates; consider becoming a volunteer. No registration is required to attend. There is no attendance fee. More information will be available in the weeks ahead.
(Bob McKeon: firstname.lastname@example.org)