Dean DettloffJune 11, 2021
A woman embraces her daughter during a rally at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in Kamloops, British Columbia, June 6, 2021. The remains of 215 children, some as young as three years old, were detected by ground-penetrating radar found at the site in May. (CNS photo/Chris Helgren, Reuters)A woman embraces her daughter during a rally at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in Kamloops, British Columbia, June 6, 2021. The remains of 215 children, some as young as three years old, were detected by ground-penetrating radar found at the site in May. (CNS photo/Chris Helgren, Reuters)

On May 27, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Nation announced the discovery of the remains of 215 children at the Kamloops Residential School in British Columbia. The school was run by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate from 1890 to 1969, when it was taken over by the federal government until it finally closed in 1978. The discovery led to renewed calls for a papal apology to respond to the legacy of residential schools and revived questions about the church’s role in colonialism in Canada.

Gerry Shingoose, a survivor of the Muscowequan Residential School in Saskatchewan, read about the discovery on social media. “I couldn’t sleep that night,” she said. “The number just stuck with me: 215 children. It brought up [memories of] my school, where we experienced children that died and also were buried on the grounds.” Muskowekwan First Nation has identified 35 unmarked burials on the site and expects to find more.

Ms. Shingoose and other survivors tied 215 orange ribbons along the fence of St. Mary’s Cathedral in downtown Winnipeg on May 29. Ms. Shingoose said the group made an appointment to meet with local Archbishop Richard Gagnon, who is also the president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, on the following Friday, June 4.

But when she and other survivors got to the church, they were met by two officials who told them the archbishop would not be coming.

The discovery led to renewed calls for a papal apology to respond to the legacy of residential schools and revived questions about the church’s role in colonialism in Canada.

“They wanted to use holy water on the ribbons,” said Ms. Shingoose. “We told them no, we didn’t want the ribbons blessed with the holy water because we already smudged them with our sacred medicines. It was our resistance to any kind of prayer or blessing from the Catholic Church.”

The survivors said they would wait for the archbishop, which they did, for over 10 hours.

Archbishop Gagnon said he was not aware of an appointment made with him and did not intend to keep anyone waiting. He was told that people were waiting at the cathedral, and he went to meet them in the evening after a day of being tied up in meetings. “I listened to them, and I suggested that we walk down the sidewalk where they have the orange ribbons and say a prayer…. I certainly went away quite positive.”

When Archbishop Gagnon arrived, Ms. Shingoose said she was seeking justice for the children in Kamloops and residential school survivors, an apology and responsibility from the Catholic Church. “I let him know that it’s Canadian law that any time a life is taken, there needs to be criminal investigations and somebody has to be held accountable.”

Archbishop Gagnon said, “I think we take [the legacy of residential schools] very seriously. The pastors I know and the bishops are very open to having conversations with people, listening to what they have to say.” He said the bishops are preparing a pastoral visit between Indigenous people and Pope Francis in the Vatican this fall, a visit that was supposed to occur earlier but which has been delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We’ve asked [the pope] to come to Canada because it’s on our soil, on our land. That’s where the children were found and also the children that need to be found.”

Ms. Shingoose also said she wanted Pope Francis to come to Canada and offer an apology, one of the 94 “calls to action” made by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015. “We’ve asked [the pope] to come to Canada because it’s on our soil, on our land,” said Ms. Shingoose. “That’s where the children were found and also the children that need to be found.”

Archbishop Gagnon offered his condolences, said Ms. Shingoose, but explained that the Catholic Church is not a single, unified body in Canada. “It was almost like he was taking the blame away from the Roman Catholic Church,” she said.

“It just broke my heart,” said Ms. Shingoose. “I didn’t see any compassion, any care or love for those children. I thought the meeting wasn’t genuine, it was fake, and I didn’t find him sincere. And the 215 children, those little spirits…it’s very unfortunate.”

Archbishop Gagnon learned of Ms. Shingoose’s feelings about the meeting later from media reports. “I respect her point of view, but I was surprised to see that,” he said. From his perspective, he said, their encounter had been cordial.

On its website, the C.C.C.B. indeed maintains that it “has a decentralized structure” and that “each diocese and religious community is corporately and legally responsible for its own actions.”

“It’s true that the church is decentralized, and I suppose in a technical sense, there is not one single church in Canada,” said Peter Bisson, S.J., who is the assistant to the Jesuit Provincial of Canada for Indigenous Relations. But “the body of Christ is one,” Father Bisson points out. “If the bishops want to speak together, they can as a body.”

“I feel frustrated and disappointed when [liability concerns get] in the way of pastoral care. And I’ve seen the damage that that kind of an argument does to people.”

Father Bisson said he has never spoken to a bishop who is against the idea of Pope Francis apologizing in Canada in principle but speculates that one reason for hesitation might be risk and liability management, citing concerns about the possibility of making every diocese responsible for what happens in other dioceses.

He said he understands that feeling but added, “I feel frustrated and disappointed when [liability concerns get] in the way of pastoral care. And I’ve seen the damage that that kind of an argument does to people.”

Beyond the possible legal ramifications of pastoral gestures, however, Father Bisson pointed to a deeper reason for church leaders’ defensive or hesitant posture toward confronting the legacy of residential schools in Canada. “There is a certain annoyance at losing our colonial power and superiority,” he said. “No one would actually say that out loud, maybe not even think it consciously, but that kind of argument is there, somewhere deep in a semi-reflexive, semi-instinctive level. We’re used to being in the dominant position.”

That loss may feel threatening or confusing, but Father Bisson thinks that is where the Holy Spirit is leading, in a process of spiritual purification.

Michel Andraos, a theologian at Saint Paul University in Ottawa, said that even if dioceses and religious orders have some degree of autonomy, “as bishops who have accompanied the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for years, they should be breaking the rules of whatever it is that prevents them from coming together and contributing to the healing of the nation.”

Father Bisson and Mr. Andraos have been working together at Saint Paul University, which was founded by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, to create a space for theological reflection on the Catholic Church’s role in Canadian colonialism.

“For me, it’s a big question, theologically speaking,” said Mr. Andraos. “What is it in Christian theology that, for centuries, prevented [Christians] from seeing that this [colonial] relationship was violent and destructive? If you’re coming in the name of the Gospel of good news and love, bringing salvation, and you’re doing so much destruction, what theologically created this blindness for so long?

“What we need, basically, is an Indigenous church—not a mission, but a church, where we run our own affairs.”

“There is nothing in the Christian tradition that wasn’t used as part of constructing this violence, whether theology of other religions, the Bible, the construction of the church and practice of sacraments—all contributed,” said Mr. Andraos. “So you need significant revision of many things. We’re just starting. This might be a bit too late.”

Mr. Andraos said the Catholic Church acknowledged at the Second Vatican Council the positive value of other religions in the document “Nostra Aetate,” but that document still has the air of colonial superiority. “We don’t know what to do,” he said. The only instance where the church was able to take a different approach has been in its relationship with Jewish people, he said, when “only recently some documents say Jewish people don’t really need Christianity for salvation.”

“But this happened [only] after genocide and scandal. This might happen with Indigenous people, in light of genocide and scandal, yet we’re moving there slowly.”

For Indigenous Catholics, the news of the burials at Kamloops emphasizes the need for a transformation of church structure to one that empowers and welcomes a unique Indigenous contribution. Stan Fontaine, a member of the Sagkeeng First Nation and a Catholic who is considering the priesthood, said the news reminded him of his own experience at Fort Alexander Residential School, which he attended for about seven years starting in 1954.

“We had all kinds of bosses in that structure,” said Mr. Fontaine. “With Indigenous culture, there isn’t such a thing. People are more equality-oriented in our culture. The elders hold a certain position of respect within our cultures, but they never tell anybody what to do.

“They’ll give them questions or something to think about,” and elders can be expected to help guide decisions, he said. “But within this framework of the boarding school system, there was a different approach. It was a top-down approach.”

“The Catholic Church did everything to assimilate us, to colonize us, using all levels of abuse to take our identity away. They tried to break that connection and were not successful.”

Mr. Fontaine said there are a lot fewer Indigenous people going to church now, given the Catholic Church’s role in Canada’s genocidal policies in the past. “Some people look at [joining the Catholic Church] as cultural suicide because the government wanted Indigenous people to assimilate for the longest time. [Residential schooling] was forced assimilation, not just a choice.”

“The Catholic Church did everything to assimilate us, to colonize us, to violate us on all levels, using all levels of abuse to take our identity away, our language, our families and our communities,” Ms. Shingoose said. “They tried to break that connection and were not successful.” She said she respects her Catholic friends and family and their spirituality, but “I lost respect for the Catholic Church for what they did to me.”

As a young person, Mr. Fontaine himself left the church and went through what he calls a difficult period. He said an encounter with the Virgin Mary brought him back to the church, but there is still a lot of work to be done to welcome Indigenous understandings of the Catholic tradition.

“I think the church has to do some assessments of its own,” said Mr. Fontaine, who identifies a number of “cultural impediments” that prevent an Indigenous presence in the Catholic Church. One, he says, is a culture of secrecy, which Indigenous people distrust.

The church’s complicity in the history of white supremacy also remains a challenge. “We were considered inferior to the system,” he said. “Today, when you look at the makeup of a lot of the hierarchy, you see more white people serving within those ranks. There are no native people there.

“I think we have a few native priests. But there are no Indigenous bishops, cardinals or much less the pope.”

Mr. Fontaine said that the Catholic Church needs to do a deep assessment of itself. “What we need, basically, is an Indigenous church—not a mission, but a church, where we run our own affairs,” said Mr. Fontaine. “In France and wherever you go, they’re running their own church and have their own leadership and so on. If we can get to that stage, I think we’ll have an Indigenous component in the church, along with the other bishops and cardinals as part of, not apart from, the church.”

In the meantime, as efforts are underway to find more unmarked graves at other residential schools, Mr. Fontaine said, “healing and reconciliation is a big job.” The church has a role to play, he said, but in cooperation with society and Indigenous people.

“I don’t think it’s just the Indigenous people that need to heal here. It’s the whole, everybody, all of Canada.”

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