‘Contrite hearts’ and concrete action: Catholics react to the legacy of Canada’s residential schools

Kevin J. Jones   By Kevin J. Jones for CNA

A Squamish Nation canoe approaching Bella Bella, Canada, June 27, 1993. Credit: UN Photo/John Isaac.

Ottawa, Canada, Aug 11, 2021 / 03:00 am (CNA).

The history of Canada’s residential schools had a dark side, made visible with the recent rediscoveries of graves of some indigenous children. Catholics spoke to CNA of the need to recognize Catholic involvement in this history. They stressed the dangers of serving a malign government policy that aimed at cultural genocide, and the need for genuine contrition and action on behalf of indigenous communities today.

“This news has helped more indigenous people understand what has taken place in residential schools than apologies have. It’s shocking news, and they should be shocked by that,” Deacon Rennie Nahanee of the Archdiocese of Vancouver told CNA.

“With the discovery of the unmarked graves, the children buried at countless residential schools, Catholic people should be thinking to themselves ‘what if those were my children’?”

The Canadian government established the residential school system in the 1870s, aiming to assimilate indigenous children. Protestant and Catholic entities ran the schools, with Catholic groups responsible for over 70 of some 130 residential schools. About 16 of the 70 Catholic dioceses in Canada were associated with the schools, as were some three dozen Catholic religious communities. The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate ran 48 of the schools.

For many indigenous children, attendance was compulsory. They were taken away from their families and forced to live at schools sometimes hundreds of miles from home. Their schools were poorly funded and poorly maintained. Their education was often substandard. And they suffered neglect and physical, emotional, and sexual abuse that amplified vulnerability to deadly disease.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission estimated that 4,100 to 6,000 students died as a result of disease, injury, neglect, or abuse over the decades. Tuberculosis was a major killer, as was influenza. The last federally-run school closed in 1996. The final report of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a body established to report on the history of the residential schools, said in 2015 that the system was part of a policy of “cultural genocide.”

“People need to know it wasn’t just a bad day at school for the children,” Deacon Nahanee said, citing the abuse. The law would jail parents who refused to let their children attend school, he said.

“Parents were pretty much powerless to stop the (Royal Canadian Mountain Police) from taking their children,” Deacon Nahanee said. “People who have small school children should ponder what their life would be like if the police came to their house and forcibly removed their children under the protection of the law.”

Deacon Nahanee, who was ordained in 2015, serves at St. Paul’s Indian Church, located on the Squamish Mission Reserve in North Vancouver. The Squamish Nation has some 3,600 members, most of whom live on reserves in the Vancouver area.

He served for nine years on the Catholic Indigenous Council, which advises the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. He has also coordinated First Nations ministry for the Vancouver archdiocese.

While Canadian Catholic leaders have been seeking to address the legacy of the residential schools for decades, the rediscovery of hundreds of graves at former residential school grounds made the matter more urgent.

Archbishop Richard Gagnon of Winnipeg, the president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, told CNA that non-indigenous Canadians need to “recognize what has happened.”

“It is important that Canadians understand the nature of the residential school project and its effect on indigenous people. That is the most important thing,” he continued. “Non-indigenous Canadians need to listen to what these people are saying. They need to be open to opportunities for bridge building and relationship building with them, based on this knowledge that has come to light in a very powerful way lately.”

Archbishop Gagnon recounted that in his youth, as he grew up in the 1950s and ‘60s, “Nobody ever talked about residential schools. Everybody thought ‘that’s fine, their kids are getting a good education’.”

“Canadians weren’t really aware of this situation from the indigenous perspective,” he said. As a priest and bishop, however, he was aware of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s findings.

“I was aware of the fact that there were gravesites. I have seen some myself over the years,” he said. While he was “not overly shocked” by the rediscovered graves, he said, he was “very saddened to hear of the numbers of children who had died.”

“How could this have happened?” Archbishop Gagnon asked. “The situation was off the radar for many Canadians and now we know that. Yes, there was this dark side to the residential schools. It’s a shocking reality.”

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops’ webpage on the residential schools noted the decentralized structure of the Catholic community and the individual responsibility of dioceses and religious communities. The Catholic entities involved in the schools have committed tens of millions of dollars and in-kind contributions as part of a major settlement for individuals and communities affected. This response, too, is controversial and some critics question whether some $20 million in Catholic obligations were prematurely waived in court.

Since 1991 individual Catholic bishops, other leaders and dioceses and organizations involved in the residential schools have been issuing apologies for the residential schools and have sought to make amends.

To explain Catholic participation in the program, Deacon Nahanee invoked the expression “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

“It’s a difference between what someone intends to do and what they actually do. And also: ‘you cannot serve two masters,’ the federal government and God,” the deacon told CNA. “Scripture says that no one can serve two masters for either he will hate the one and love the other or he will hold on to one and despise the other.”

“If they had good intentions of helping the native students in the school, that changed with the imposition of rules by the federal government of the day, which was to take the Indian out of the child,” he reflected.

While the religious groups and the federal government say they working to provide all records of the students who died, this effort is further complicated because children’s indigenous names could be anglicized or replaced with different names at the schools.

“I think people should know their names,” said Deacon Nahanee, who said some parents weren’t even notified if their children died.

“People need to know where these children came from,” he said. “Are their remains going to be returned to their communities? Who’s going to pay for that? I would expect the government to pay for that since they’re the ones who caused the problem in the first place.”

In his view, the children’s remains “need to be disinterred, with ceremony” and returned to their own communities “with another ceremony welcoming them home, and giving peace and closure to their families, who probably wondered what happened to their children.”

Deacon Nahanee voiced concern for any runaways who died away from the school.

“They should have a memorial for the children that nobody will ever know,” he said.

One of the researchers involved in the commission’s report, Dr. Scott Hamilton, a professor in the Department of Anthropology at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, said that more work is needed to document adequately the location and scope of cemeteries at residential schools.

Many cemeteries at or near former school grounds hold the graves not only of residential students but also school staff and their children as well as nuns and priests, Hamilton told the B.C. Catholic newspaper. Some locations served as community cemeteries for nearby residents, including local schoolchildren.

Evidence of some graves has disappeared due to the decay of wooden grave markers and graveyard fences.

Government officials aimed to pay only the bare minimum for the cost of burials and rarely paid to return the bodies of deceased children to their home communities. Some deaths went unreported because institutions were overwhelmed by an epidemic situation, Hamilton believes.

Indigenous children suffered and died from communicable diseases at much higher rates than the general population in the 19th and early 20th centuries. These vulnerabilities were worsened by the poor conditions at “crowded, often unsanitary, and poorly constructed residential schools,” Hamilton said in a report to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

As late as 1945, the death rate among indigenous children at the schools was as almost five times the death rate of other Canadian children the same age. This dropped to twice the average by the mid-20th century, in part due to the arrival of effective antibiotics and other improved medical care.

In the early twentieth century there was at least one suggestion to address the threat of disease by closing the residential schools and moving to a day school model on reservations. Catholics involved in running the residential schools, however, did not support the proposed change, according to the commission, and this suggestion was dropped.

For Deacon Nahanee, one biblical image is particularly relevant to respond to this era of Canadian history.

“Indigenous people need to see Catholic people with contrite hearts,” Deacon Nahanee said, adding that this contrition is “the deepest sorrow for something that has been committed against other people.”

Catholics “need to not only feel that, but feel that they need and want to do something to help those who faced the injustice against those children,” he said. “They need to have that if they want to serve in indigenous communities.”

When children returned home in their mid-teens, Deacon Nahanee explained, parents and relatives were “powerless again to re-integrate these grown children into family life.” He compared the returned children to those who served as child soldiers.

“You cannot bring them back to where they were before, to deal with the issues that they have: post-traumatic stress from the residential school,” he said.

The commission report cited the example of John Kibash, a student who was taught only in French. When he returned to his family, he could no longer speak his parents’ language of Algonquin. He “found it almost impossible to communicate with them the abuse he experienced at the school.”

“These were real children, children who were put in the care of members of the Catholic Church,” Deacon Nahanee said. Those running the schools “were serving more the federal government than the God they were supposed to represent.”

“The brokenness of former students is not repaired by apologies. We know actions speak louder than words,” he added, saying the trauma of the residential schools “lasted for generations.”

“When these children became parents, they lacked the example of growing up in a family. This made them vulnerable to efforts to remove children from their homes on the grounds of child neglect, in another program of the Canadian government that deliberately placed indigenous children in homes with white parents.”

This controversial program was known as the “Sixties Scoop.” For Deacon Nahanee, this was “another double whammy” for Canada’s indigenous people.

The Catholic deacon and Squamish elder wants concrete action to make reparations to indigenous communities. He has one proposal of his own.

“The Catholic Church took away the language, spirituality and culture of indigenous children. I believe they need to bring that back,” he said, citing Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommendations that the Church pay for language lessons and similar programs.

Deacon Nahanee advocates the creation of an “indigenous Catholic rite of the Mass” that uses native communities’ languages and songs.

“I think that’s the way that the Church can truly reconcile. If they want to ‘walk with us’, then they will help us in what we need to do to bring our language back,” said Deacon Nahanee, whose proposed liturgy would still include translations into languages like English.

With Masses held every Sunday, native languages would be “protected and embedded into Church culture, so that people in our Squamish community, for example, can learn their language.”

“More people attend funerals than go to church on Sunday,” he added. “I believe that if they saw our language being used, they would certainly recognize that as a nod from the Church that things are changing.”

“That’s what I call a reconciliation,” said Deacon Nahanee.

He voiced concern that Catholic rules and canon laws regarding marriage hinder indigenous people from being married in the Church, being baptized, or receiving Communion if their previous marriages were irregular.

Deacon Nahanee was also deeply concerned that a disproportionate number of indigenous people are in Canadian prisons today and make up a disproportionate number of missing women and children.

Archbishop Gagnon said the Catholic Church has had a long association with indigenous people, sometimes dating back centuries.

“Often on the ground in the indigenous communities themselves from my own personal experience in Winnipeg, our relationship with indigenous leaders continues to be good,” the archbishop said. “Relationships have been established. There’s a good groundwork there to work on.”

Archbishop Gagnon said a group of bishops representing the Canadian bishops’ conference has been working on dialogue with national and indigenous leaders and planning a delegation to Pope Francis representing Canada’s three indigenous groups: the First Nations, the Inuit, and the Metis, the last of whom are a uniquely Canadian group of mixed European and indigenous ancestry. Pope Francis has allocated a day each for representatives from each group.

“The Pope has set aside an extraordinary amount of time for us and we’re looking forward to it very much,” said Archbishop Gagnon. He reported that many indigenous people are Catholic. In a First Nation reserve or territory, there will be a minority of people who regularly practice their Catholic faith.

“Many of these communities have long Catholic connections. They honor the history, their connection with the Church in the early days. I’ve heard that many times,” he said. “I’ve met quite a few elders who are fully Catholic and fully traditional. They find the traditional teachings of their Catholic faith to be in most part pretty well in harmony and the two complement one another.”

“I think the indigenous people have a lot to offer the Church, and the Church to them,” the archbishop continued. “Our basic Catholic teachings are not unlike a lot of the traditional teachings of the indigenous people. They are very much connected to the natural order: what we learn from nature, what nature teaches us. We Catholics can recognize this in our teaching on natural law.”

Some former students of residential schools reported positive experiences in testimony and other records collected by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Archbishop Gagnon said, but “they were not by any means a majority.”

“The overall picture of the schools and their effect on the indigenous people is quite obvious, and I think that’s a thing we certainly need to deal with.”

Deacon Nahanee himself was not part of the residential school system. Instead, he attended an

Indian day school run by the federal government where Catholic religious sisters were teachers.

He recounted that in seventh-grade religion class, for several Mondays, he was the only student who did not raise his hand when the sister asked if he had attended church on Sunday.

On his own initiative, he decided “to go down to church to see what it was like.”

“And what I saw was the elders serving in different ministries at St. Paul’s Church here in North Vancouver. I could tell they loved doing what they were doing because I could see it in their eyes. They became mentors to me,” he said. “I just watched their actions. Even though they attended the residential school they still helped out with the Church.”


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