PHOTO | MISSIONARY OBLATES, GRANDIN ARCHIVES, 082596
Children in a class at the Ermineskin Indian Residential School at Hobbema are shown in this photo dated 1932.
At the end of March, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) will hold what it calls a national event at Edmonton’s Shaw Conference Centre.
It is important that you attend as much of the March 27 to 30 event as possible to hear some of the voices of aboriginal people who attended and suffered at Church-run residential schools that were a key part of the Church’s ministry in the West for roughly 100 years.
“Why should I listen to these people complain about institutions that no longer exist?” you may ask. “I have heard so much about it on TV for decades. They are just more people trying to make the Church look bad.”
For one thing, to be Catholic today should mean coming to an awareness of how deeply ambiguous the Church’s past is and, unless we take concrete action, the extent to which moral evil will be a part of our future.
Fifteen years ago, Blessed John Paul II met strong resistance when as part of the Church’s preparation for the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, he wanted a service of apology for all the wrongs done in the name of the Church over the past two millennia. Many Church officials resisted, perhaps because they wanted the Church’s history to be seen as the ever-brighter emergence of light and holiness in the world.
Catholics also need to come to grips with the story of residential schools. It is not just part of the past; it had a significant effect on the lives of aboriginal peoples, an effect which persists today.
Yet the residential school issue is rife with over-simplifications. The schools are sometimes painted as the main source of the oppression of aboriginal peoples in Canada today.
Yet, never at any time were more than half of the children of eligible age students in those schools. Moreover, for better or worse, many of Canada’s aboriginal leaders were formed by those schools.
The schools themselves were of starkly uneven quality and motivation. While the federal government was unequivocal in its desire to “kill the Indian in the child,” some schools made efforts to preserve native languages and to defend children from exploitation.
The schools suffered from a lack of qualified staff, chronic government underfunding, conflicts between the Oblates who ran the schools and the sisters who staffed them, and the understandable resistance of parents to the whole project.
There was widespread physical abuse and a significant amount of sexual abuse. Disease was rampant with large numbers of students dying at the schools or in the years shortly thereafter.
Aboriginal children were stripped of some aspects of their culture while attending residential schools, although, to the vexation of both the government and school administrators, once the children returned to the reserve, they reverted to traditional ways. From the students’ point of view, however, they didn’t fit anywhere – either in the white world or in aboriginal society.
Unquestionably, the schools were an instrument of colonialism. They were not, however, the only way the government sought to colonize and assimilate First Nations people. And although the residential schools closed decades ago and the prime minister has apologized for their existence, the policy of colonialism continues today.
The Oblates were part of that policy of colonialism.
When their general superior from Rome visited the Western Canadian missions in 1935, he told them the purpose of the schools should not be to “de-Indianize” the students, but to form good Christians. He rapped their knuckles for placing too much effort on the schools while neglecting to minister to aboriginal people living on reserves.
At the 1991 Lac Ste. Anne Pilgrimage, the Oblates apologized for their actions in the schools and for allowing the schools to be created in the first place.
The Christianity preached during the era of the residential schools was a hellfire and brimstone faith that looked toward a merciless, authoritarian God. It’s not surprising that native people suffered psychologically from such preaching.
Eventually, the Oblates became great defenders of native rights, were the first to defend the right of aboriginal people to run their own schools and encouraged the use of native languages.
Today, we need to listen to the stories of the survivors of residential schools. If we want a Canada where the First Peoples and the descendants of the settlers live in trust and harmony, those stories must be heard with openness and without negative judgments.
Residential schools played a major role in stealing away the culture of native people and scarring the lives of many of their students. The clock cannot be rolled back. But if healing is to occur and the future is to hold new life, the past must be faced squarely.
There is lots of blame to go around regarding residential schools. But apologies and paroxysms of guilt are not enough. A common, national effort is needed to build that future of life. The Church – and that includes us as individuals – has a crucial role to play.
Over the next few issues of the WCR, leading up to the national event at the end of March, I will be writing articles to help readers understand the residential schools. Those articles won't solve the problems. But maybe they can encourage us to take a few steps forward.