April 22, 2013

EDMONTON – For Indre Cuplinskas the April 12 Social Justice Institute was an opportunity to learn more about the legacy of residential schools.

"It's an opportunity in a few hours to get the kind of knowledge that you don't get just reading a book, which is the way I usually attain most of my knowledge," said Cuplinskas who teaches the history of Christianity, and other courses on social justice at St. Joseph's College.

Since relocating to Alberta from Toronto six years ago, she has learned more and more about residential schools.

The schools were part of the assimilative policies that the Canadian government directed at aboriginal people from the 1880s onward. Most residential schools were in the West and the North, but there were also significant numbers in Ontario and northern Quebec.

By 1930, the residential school system totaled 80 institutions, with Roman Catholics operating three-fifths of them.

The experiences of residential school students were mostly negative, said Cuplinskas.

Common complaints include the food being low in quantity and poor in quality, the clothing was detested, missionary staff denigrated Aboriginal spiritual traditions, aboriginal languages were forbidden, punishments were excessive and some teachers were sexual predators.

Cuplinskas said it's vital to get the whole story. It's important to understand the Catholic Church's involvement in the residential schools, the damage that was caused, the mistakes made.

"This is the bigger question of history and how it shapes us. The way we understand our past shapes our present," she said.

Cuplinskas finds it fascinating that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is a government initiative yet it has deep spiritual roots in reconciliation.

"When we think of the government, we think of bureaucracy and parties trying to get elected, political manoeuvring and so forth.

"So for me it's refreshing to see a process for which the government is taking responsibility and initiating, yet has spiritual roots. It's a weird thing to see in some ways," she said.

In Red Deer, Cecile Fausak has been pursuing the residential school issue by researching the largely-forgotten graves of children who died while attending the Red Deer Indian Industrial School.

Fausak said the project, initiated by Sunnybrook United Church, has led to the first of four ceremonies to remember the children.

As well, the Remembering the Children Society has been formed to help to commemorate residential school cemeteries across Alberta.

Marie Wilson, a commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said thousands of children who died in residential schools are buried across Canada, "many of them in unmarked graves, many of them in graveyards where their own family members perhaps never had the chance to do proper spiritual farewells or sending-home ceremonies."

Wilson said churches can use their buildings, pulpits and airtime to educate people and to discuss the residential schools.

"There are many churches that choose to use Sunday worship as a kind of educational development day," she said.