WCR PHOTO | RAMON GONZALEZ
Ray Berkenbosh, a King's College professor, leads one of the meeting's resources stations.
For more than 100 years thousands of aboriginal children were forcibly sent to Indian residential schools funded by the federal government and run by Christian churches and religious communities.
These schools were located across Canada and established with the purpose to eliminate parental involvement in the spiritual, cultural and intellectual development of aboriginal children.
The attempt to wipe out aboriginal cultures failed but left a serious need for reconciliation between aboriginal and non-aboriginal peoples.
In an attempt to achieve healing and reconciliation, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada has been holding hearings and other national events for several years.
These events provide an opportunity to engage the Canadian public and to educate people about the history of the residential school system, the experience of former students and their families and the ongoing legacies of the institutions within communities. The events also provide opportunities to celebrate regional diversity and honour those touched by residential schools.
Such an event will be held at Edmonton's Shaw Conference Centre from March 27 to 30.
In preparation for it, about 150 people, including leaders from a variety of churches, gathered at The King's University Nov. 30. The Social Justice Institute organized the gathering, which included presentations, videos on the residential school system, discussion and resource stations.
United Church Minister Cecile Fausak said churches and society can't move forward "until we deal with our past."
"We need to muster up the courage to truly discover what is causing the pain in this country in order to heal well," she said. "We must discover in what way our relationships are broken in order to mend them and gently whisper the circle back."
Fausak invited participants to show up and "be physically present" at the TRC gathering in March. "Be there with your whole hearts and your whole bodies and your whole minds," she said.
"Witness the truth being told, inhabit the past like you never have before and discover what repentance and forgiveness means to you on this journey of reconciliation and liberation."
Bob McKeon, coordinator of social justice for the Edmonton Archdiocese, asked participants to do their best to make the TRC event successful. "How can we can get people interested, involved and committed for what's going to happen in our city at the end of March?"
McKeon urged participants to make the print resources and videos provided at the gathering available to their local congregations.
"The issues we are talking about here are relevant to all of us," he said. "We are talking about basic issues of human dignity and social justice and as we work from a moral ethical foundation we need to address those."
The residential schools' issue is a national issue with a local or regional face. On a table at The King's gathering were pictures of 25 residential schools across Alberta. Many students in these schools were physically, mentally and sexually abused. Some committed suicide. Some died fleeing their schools.
"The effects of the residential schools are alive and well today; I live in inner city Edmonton and certainly we can see intergenerational effects there," McKeon pointed out.
"The goal is working for right relationships in the future and by our commitment to being here today we want to work toward building that right relationship in the future and we want to see that our churches become key agents in building that right relationship in the future."
Roy Berkenbosh, a member of the Social Justice Institute and professor at The King's University, said the whole purpose of The Kings' gathering was to train the churches for the March event and to provide them with education and information.
Berkenbosh personally wants to motivate his church – the Christian Reformed Church – and his students. He said all 500 students at King's will attend the TRC event in March.
"We need to care about the residential school issue because this is part of our shared history as Canadians and as long as we are un-reconciled to each other as aboriginal people and as settler community, we are wounded as a nation," Berkenbosh said in an interview.
"This is more intense for us as Christians because the Gospel calls us to be agents of reconciliation."
Churches must educate their people on what the residential schools were all about and what the settlement agreement were all about because "because as congregations understand that, they are better able to approach the March event in a spirit of openness and humility," Berkenbosh said.
"We are faced with a community that's in pain, a community that has suffered injustice and we are in a position where we are being called to do something. This is particular relevant to us because these schools were in fact operated by churches."
Sister Josefina Pollentes, superior of the Sisters of Merciful Jesus in Hobbema, attended the event in preparation for the TRC gathering in March. "I believe the TRC is important for us because it helps us understand better our First Nations brothers and sisters," the sister said.
She said the Church should pray that the March event will be a fruitful event that fulfills its goal of reconciliation and healing. "So I think we should be praying for this upcoming event and be more involved in its preparation," she said. "We should become familiarized with what this event is all about."
Pollentes and two Hobbema parishioners that came with her plan to give feedback in their parish community "and we are hoping we have enough time to be able to have a local information event to encourage our people to participate in March."
Cathy Garvey of Annunciation Parish was also around. "I think it's extremely important that we as Christians come to understand what has gone on in the past and how we need to fix the problem," she said. "We created the problem and we now need to help fix it."
The TRC is important, she said, because it gives us the information we need to act. "The point is for us to acknowledge the hurt and ask for forgiveness."
Garvey said the Church should try to give parishioners as much information as possible "to help parishioners understand what was done, maybe with good intentions, but definitely wrong." She and another delegate from her parish "want to do something" to spread what they learned and prepare the parish for the March event.