Bob McKeon

February 18, 2013

Aboriginal issues have been very much in the headlines in recent weeks, including the hunger strike of Chief Theresa Spence and the widespread protests of the Idle No More Movement.

Also in the headlines was the high-profile meeting called on short notice with Prime Minister Harper and leaders from the Assembly of First Nations. At least for a time, the long-standing grievances of aboriginal peoples related to treaty rights, poverty, unemployment, inadequate housing and environmental threats to traditional lands are being taken seriously by the Canadian government and the wider Canadian public.

The leaders of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Canadian Religious Conference, and the provincial superior of the Lacombe Province of the Oblates each wrote letters to the prime minister affirming the seriousness of the issues being raised, and the importance of the federal government moving quickly to address these issues in a just and fair manner.

However, these recent letters from Catholic leaders are part of a much longer running conversation among Church leaders, government officials and aboriginal leaders.


One key area of conversation has been the difficult history and legacy of the government-funded, Church-run Indian residential schools. It is estimated that over a period of 130 years, more than 150,000 First Nations, Metis and Inuit children attended approximately 130 residential schools. The majority of these schools were run by Catholic religious orders or dioceses.

While there were some positive outcomes, and experiences varied from school to school, many of the students remember their time at the schools as a time of pain and trauma. In these schools, the children, as young as five years old, were separated from their families and communities for months and sometimes years at a time.

At the schools, the students experienced serious culture shock, unfamiliar food, discipline and language. Their aboriginal culture was seldom respected, and often they were not permitted to speak their language. Some of the children experienced serious physical and sexual abuse.

When they left the residential schools, many of the students encountered difficulties going back to their own home communities and rejoining their families.

As adults, these former students experienced serious challenges in parenting their own children, having spent so many of their formative years away from their own families.

By the 1990s, just as the last schools were closing, there emerged a widespread public debate in Canada about the history and legacy of these Indian residential schools. Leaders of the churches' organizations associated with these schools issued public apologies.

Also in the 1990s, former students launched thousands of lawsuits, suing the government and the Church bodies involved with the running of the residential schools.


Rather than take all these cases through a long and expensive legal trial process, all the parties agreed to become partners in Canada's largest out-of-court settlement, the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement.

One part of this agreement was the creation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The goals of the TRC are to document in a public manner the truth about the residential schools, facilitate healing and to work towards renewed "relationships on a basis of inclusion, mutual understanding and respect."

The TRC process includes several large public "national" events and smaller regional and community events. At each event, those who were involved with the residential schools are given an opportunity to tell about their experiences in either a public or a private setting.


For these TRC events to achieve their goals of truth-telling, public education, healing and reconciliation, it is crucial that significant numbers of both aboriginal and non-aboriginal people attend.

It is especially important that members of the churches historically associated with these schools attend. In the TRC events held so far, Catholic bishops, clergy, religious order representatives and laity have participated.

It will soon be Alberta's turn. A series of community TRC events will take place across Alberta, starting in Red Deer in early June. A large-scale "national" Alberta TRC event will take place in spring 2014, likely in Edmonton or Calgary.

This historic moment is a time of "grace" for healing, reconciliation and renewed relationships that can go far beyond the issues associated with residential schools. Now is the time to start preparing and start the conversations in each of our parishes and Church organizations in Alberta.

(Bob McKeon: