Time to overcome the disastrous legacy of residential schools

WCR PHOTO | GLEN ARGAN

Lorna Arcand of Muskeg Lake Cree Nation smudges herself before the sacred fire at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission national event in Edmonton March 29.

April 28, 2014
BRETT FAWCETT
SPECIAL TO THE WCR

Anyone who goes to Confession regularly knows how hard it is to be honest about your sins. Harder still to say them out loud and apologize.

But the conference of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, hosted in Edmonton during the last week of March, was committed to doing both. The TRC is dedicated to honesty about what the Canadian churches and government inflicted on the native population in the residential school system.

This program, run by a perverse ecumenism of different denominations in union with a horrifically misguided government, was devoted to training the natives not to be natives: Children were separated from their families, forbidden to wear the clothing of their tribe, and, generally, were forced to behave like little Europeans.

The conference was filled with tables piled with Church archives documenting the residential schools with abstract statistics, old maps, and blurry, often anonymous photographs of the students.

In another room, aging, sombre victims of the residential system shared their memories of being detained at these schools (this is a much more appropriate expression than to say that they "attended" them).

These anecdotes confirmed that physical, emotional and sexual abuse were not infrequent within those innocent-looking walls.

The reason the churches participated in this assault on First Nations culture was because they viewed its elimination as part of their mission of evangelization. The native culture had developed without the Gospel; therefore, in order to make proper Christians out of the "Indians," it was necessary to force them to renounce their cultural inheritance along with their spiritual traditions.

CIVILIZATION IMPOSED

As the apology from the United Church put it, "We imposed our civilization as a condition of accepting the Gospel." It was all done with the best of intentions. Thus was paved the road to the residential schools' hell.

But the fact is that this was not how the Europeans were converted to Christianity. The way of Christian witness, going all the way back to St. Paul on Mars Hill: Discover what in the local culture was true and show how it was, in the phrase of the Church fathers, "preparation for the Gospel."

For example, the pre-Christian wheel of candles that symbolized the changing of the seasons became our Advent wreath.

JESUIT LEGACY

The Jesuit missionaries to the Hurons understood that pre-Christian did not mean anti-Christian. Reading their letters to their superiors back in France, a fascinating picture emerges of their perception of the First Nations communities they dealt with.

One Jesuit compares their practice to the Greek philosophers and their clothing to that of St. John the Baptist, both of whom prepared the way for Christ. St. Jean de Brebeuf went further in using the language and imagery of their culture to explain the Gospel.

We can see this in his Huron Carol, which our hymnal still carries: God is called "Gitchi Manitou," the Algonquian term he discovered meant "Great Spirit", and his lyrics have Jesus being born in "a lodge of broken bark" and wrapped in "rabbit skin."

CULTURAL FLESH

Brebeuf wasn't interested in rooting out native culture. Instead, he saw in it flesh for the Word to take on.

If only later Christians had listened as well as he had – listened to the First Nations they were "helping" and listened to God. Since they weren't listening carefully enough to either, they committed a grievous sin against both. How can we forge a true reconciliation in the ruins of this moral disaster?

HIGH LITURGY

I believe that the deep reconciliation that really needs to occur is between the Gospel and the native cultures. The conference, I noticed, was permeated with the smell of burning sweetgrass, like incense at a high liturgy.

Outside, a sacred fire blazed throughout the event, like the sanctuary flame at the corner of the church. Nearby, a tipi housed a man who fasted and prayed throughout for the success of the conference, like one of our prophets or saints would have.

There is so much here already. God has already prepared a body for his Son to inhabit in the First Nations spiritual tradition, and only when this is widely realized will there be the true "reconciliation" among us with each other and between all of us and God.

We can already see the first stirrings of this in something like the Sacred Heart Parish here in Edmonton, which smudges and uses sweetgrass instead of incense, or in the spirituality of Archbishop Pettipas of Grouard-McLennan, who celebrates Mass in his moccasins.

But only when this is commonplace, when Christianity is organically imbued with the native distinctiveness that the residential schools tried to erase, will their damage finally be undone, and we can hear the benediction from heaven: "Your sins are forgiven. Go in peace."

(Brett Fawcett is an aspiring writer from Our Lady of Perpetual Help parish in Sherwood Park.)