OTTAWA (CCN) — The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) final report summary released June 2 opens with a charge of “cultural genocide,” saying that for “over a century, the central goals of Canada’s Aboriginal policy were to eliminate Aboriginal governments; ignore Aboriginal rights; terminate the Treaties; and, through a process of assimilation, cause Aboriginal Peoples to cease to exist as distinct legal, social, cultural, and racial entities in Canada.”
The devastating summary also called on the pope to apologize within one year to Indian residential school survivors and their communities.
The pope should apologize in Canada for “the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional and physical and sexual abuse” of Aboriginal children who attended the Catholic-run schools, the report said.
This was one of 94 Calls to Action found within in the TRC’s lengthy executive summary of its final report. The TRC spent seven years hearing testimony and collecting documents to record the history of the 139 Indian residential schools that affected 150,000 Aboriginal students. The impact of not only sexual and physical abuse on many, but also the separation of children from families and their language and culture had ramifications on the survivors and succeeding generations.
The summary asserts residential schools were “based on an assumption that European civilization and Christian religions were superior to Aboriginal culture, which was seen as being savage and brutal.”
It blames colonization for wreaking “havoc” in the lives of Aboriginal people.
And it blamed churches for giving the “moral justification” for colonization, and dispatching missionaries “to convert ‘the heathen.’ ”
Grouard-McLennan Archbishop Gerard Pettipas who chairs the corporation of Catholic entities — dioceses and religious orders that ran residential schools and were party to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA) — said he would receive the Calls to Action and bring them before the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops’ annual plenary in September.
“I will call on (the bishops) to take this seriously, to see in what ways they can fulfil if not the letter certainly the spirit of these Calls to Action,” Pettipas said. The Calls to Action include a range of issues from child welfare, education, health care, language and culture, to specific ways of achieving reconciliation with government, the churches, in educational institutions and in the media.
As for obtaining an apology from Pope Francis, Pettipas said he had no idea how that could be brought about. Putting a deadline and insisting on Canada might make things even more difficult should the pope not be able to meet it.
“In a real sense it is for the church in Canada to be involved in further gestures, not for the Holy Father,” he said.
Pettipas said it’s been difficult for people to understand the Catholic Church’s decentralized structure, where every bishop “is solely responsible for his diocese” and independent, as are religious orders. Not even the CCCB can speak for all the bishops, he said. “That’s just the way the church is.”
The corporation of the 50 or so Catholic entities will soon dissolve, since it was created for the purpose of negotiating and settling the litigation launched against churches and the government, Pettipas said.
Pettipas said he understands the cry of cultural genocide when expressed from the point of view of Aboriginal peoples. But he questions whether motives can be imputed to everyone who was involved in the schools, least of all the teachers and administrators.
He said he has heard enough of their testimony to know that for many of them “it was ministry.”
While today we might look back and see things differently, they “saw it as trying to teach these young people to be able to enter into the mainstream of society and to do that successfully.”
“So I find it hard to judge them and say, you individuals, you tried to kill the Indian in the child,” he said. “They wouldn’t have seen that. From today’s insight, we might say that’s what happened, but that wasn’t the intent.”
Ottawa Archbishop Terrence Prendergast acknowledged the harm residential schools caused Aboriginal Canadians. “The truth is many children died there; many children were physically and sexually abused either by the staff or people that were employed there, and in effect the consequences were cultural devastation to the people.”
“Harm was done,” he said. “Many of the problems native people face now began as a result of this. It’s inter-generational now and needs healing and peace.”
On June 1, Prendergast joined other spiritual leaders in public actions of reconciliation.
“I am deeply saddened by the counter-witness given by members of the Catholic Christian faith who abused the trust that was given them,” the archbishop said.
He spoke of how religious communities acted as “agents of the state” and how Canadian society “wrongfully believed the best way to assist Aboriginal peoples was by assimilating them into the dominant culture.”
“Children were separated from their families and communities, forbidden to speak their mother tongue, and made to abandon their heritage,” Prendergast said. “These actions contributed to the breakdown of Aboriginal families. They eroded cultural identity.”
“Tragically, many suffered abuses in the residential schools that have left deep, lasting wounds,” he said. “I wish to express my sorrow and my shame for these injustices done by Catholics.”
He acknowledged the hurt inflicted by residential school staff. “I humbly ask for forgiveness from my sisters and brothers who were wronged. The church is taking every step to prevent such abuses of Aboriginal children in the future.”
Pettipas hopes his brother bishops will recognize that even if they did not have residential schools in their dioceses, they have Aboriginal residents who were affected by the schools directly or indirectly.
Pettipas said the TRC process has been “very, very good for Canada.”
“It has brought to light the plight of our First Nations people in a way that allows non-native Canadians to recognize the ills and problems of First Nations individuals and communities do have a history,” he said. “We have to own that history. It isn’t just people who are whiners and complainers; it isn’t just people who have addiction problems.”
Pettipas pointed out the church’s relationship with native peoples predates the residential school system. “Churches ran schools long before there were residential schools as such,” he said.
Many native people have and continue to identify as Catholics and many priests, religious and lay ministers live on reserves, he said. “We have a heritage that is good and long lasting.”
“I think the fruit of this whole exercise is indeed going to be in a new and a better relationship globally, across Canada between natives and non-natives,” Pettipas said. “It’s going to have to involve everybody. This is not on one person’s shoulders.”
Grand Chief Harvey Yesno of the Nishnawbe Aski First Nation located in Northern Ontario said he attended two residential schools as did 11 of his 14 siblings.
“I personally have come to terms with physical and sexual abuse I have experienced,” he said.
Even the experience of being separated from the family caused a lot of suffering, he said. But the events that have led up to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, including the prime minister’s apology in 2008, have produced a great deal of healings. Chief Yesno said he felt bad for some of his siblings who had passed away before these events happened.
The stories he has heard from other residential school survivors helped him see how he had been impacted and the effect it had on his parenting skills, he said. “I have family never saw this happen. They died with their memories of their experience and literally, in some cases, passed on their behaviour and how they parented with their children, and I see the results of that in my family.”
As a Christian who has also “walked the traditional way,” Yesno said he found it unbelievable how the churches at the time behaved toward native people. “I think we now know why. We were considered less than other people. That was the teaching that had gone on for hundreds of years,” he said. “I have reconciled because I have a personal relationship with the Lord and I find that helps to deal with those things, and I still do. It will take time to really deal with all the issues affected by residential schools.”
— With files from Robert Du Broy