WCR PHOTO | GLEN ARGAN
Joreal Orr, a student at Ben Calf Robe-St. Clare School in Edmonton and Archbishop Richard Smith exchanged gifts following Smith's apology for Catholic involvement in residential schools.
Alberta's Catholic bishops have invited the faithful to attend the national event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) March 27 to 30 in Edmonton.
The bishops also apologized to those who experienced physical and sexual abuse in Indian residential schools run by the Church.
Archbishop Richard Smith of Edmonton, president of the Alberta Catholic Bishops, offered the invitation and apology at a media event Feb. 24 at Ben Calf Robe-St. Clare School in Edmonton.
"We, the Catholic Bishops of Alberta and Northwest Territories, apologize to those who experienced sexual and physical abuse in residential schools under Catholic administration," Smith said, reading the bishops' letter.
"We also express our apology and regret for Catholic participation in government policies that resulted in children being separated from their families, and often suppressed aboriginal culture and language at the residential schools."
Before meeting with reporters, Smith fielded questions from students in the kindergarten to Grade 9 program at Ben Calf Robe, a school oriented to providing programs, including Cree language instruction, that uphold aboriginal culture.
The TRC is "a very important historic moment," he said. When people are hurt, it is important to say that you're sorry and to make amends.
In response to a student's question on how survivors of residential schools can find healing, Smith said not only former students, but also their family members and members of the community need to find healing.
"It must be said that the broader Church community, the broader community, also hurts deeply the more we become aware of the legacy of the schools," he said.
"How do we help one another to grow and to heal and to be reconciled and to learn from the whole experience?"
Smith said the most important step in reconciliation is to sit down, listen to one another intently and "expressing sorrow, regret, apology wherever that is appropriate."
The Returning to Spirit program of workshops, launched by an aboriginal man and a religious sister, he noted, provides an extensive process of people speaking truth to one another about residential schools in order to provide healing, but also to transform society.
Asked by another student whether the residential schools will ever be forgotten, Smith said, "I sure hope not.
"Every effort is being taken to make sure that not just we today, but Canadians into the future, do not forget about residential schools. We need to remember our past in order to learn from it."
In their letter, the bishops also committed themselves to working in the Catholic community and the wider society to challenge attitudes of racism and prejudice that persist today.
In response to a reporter's question, Smith noted that this was not the first time Catholic institutions have apologized to aboriginal people for their involvement in residential schools.
However, to issue an invitation to Catholics to attend the TRC event without also apologizing to aboriginal people "would be a missed opportunity," he said.
Native elder Jerry Wood sang a prayer in Cree to launch the event and give thanks to the Creator for his blessings.
Later, Wood, a member of the Saddle Lake First Nations, recalled his experiences at the Blue Quill Residential School in St. Paul and the Ermineskin Residential School at Hobbema, which he called "the worst years of my life."
"I kind of say it destroyed me," he told reporters. The sexual, mental and spiritual abuse at the schools led him to spend half of his life on alcohol.
Students at the schools were allowed neither to speak their own language nor to talk with their siblings of the opposite sex, he recalled. "I was told I would never amount to anything. I was a very, very angry young man when I left residential school."
Now when he runs workshops, he asks participants why so many aboriginal people are in jail, on the street or have alcohol problems. "I always tell them the main culprit is the residential school."
Wood said he was pleased to hear the Alberta bishops' apology. "That's what I wanted to hear – 'I'm sorry.' I thought I would never hear that word."