OTTAWA (CCN) — Grouard-McLennan Archbishop Gerard Pettipas promised to include a message of reconciliation in his Christmas Eve services in the Little Red River Cree Nation in northern Alberta.
Pettipas, who chaired the 50 Catholic entities who were parties to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA), told the closing event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) he would be celebrating Christmas Eve mass in the Garden River and John D’Or Prairie, communities in Little Red River.
“I’m going to speak to them,” he said. “It’s Christmas. I know it’s about celebrating the birth of Jesus. But as we think about that child, Jesus, who was loved by his mother and Joseph, Mary and Joseph, that in a sense this is what we wish for all of our people today.”
The archbishop offered a personal reflection to the several hundred Canadians, including residential school survivors, indigenous leaders, the TRC commissioners and political leaders, describing himself as “a typical non-Aboriginal Canadian.”
“I grew up in a home with loving parents, with brothers and a sister. I got a good education,” he said. “My father used to say to me, you know, the day that you don’t learn something is a wasted day. And as I become familiar with the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and I’ve attended a number of the national events, I came away from there saying I have learned something today.”
“It’s not always been easy to learn it; it’s been very painful as I’ve sat and listened to the stories of countless former students who talk about their experience in the schools. It’s not easy to hear those kinds of stories,” he said.
The testimony of the many survivors documented by the TRC “calls us to honour the experience of their lives, of their youth,” he said.
Pettipas acknowledged the Roman Catholic Church ran the majority of residential schools for the federal government.
“We bear a great responsibility for what happened in those years,” he said. “Back in 1991 I know the first apology was given by the Oblates through then Father Doug Crosby, who is now the Bishop of Hamilton.”
“And it’s obvious that the reality of the schools began to dawn upon us, began to realize what we’ve done,” he said. “We may have thought that we were doing a good work, and to realize that even for all of those good intentions, it wasn’t always good that came of it. And we have to live with that. We have to try to deal with it. We come to the point now where we have to move forward.”
The archbishop said he has reflected a great deal on what reconciliation means, what it looks like and how it comes about.
“I’ve come to realize that it isn’t so much a destination; reconciliation is a way of life,” he said. “It’s a way of life. And it’s how we have to live our lives as Canadians, not just in terms of residential schools.”
“I think this has become sort of a paradigm for the rest of our society. We need to be reconciled — reconciled with ourselves, reconciled with one another, reconciled with our environment, with our world. There — this is a huge task and could be, as I say, a paradigm for everything that we do,” he said. “I commit myself personally, and I will continue to bring before my fellow bishops in Canada and fellow religious leaders the Calls to Action of the TRC. I think there’s a monumental task ahead of us. This is not going to be easy.”
Other churches that were parties to the IRSSA also addressed the meeting.
“The United Church of Canada accepts responsibility for its active role in this history and for our false assumptions of cultural and spiritual superiority,” said United Church of Canada moderator Rev. Jordan Cantwell.
The United Church has committed itself to the principles of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, she said, and will work with its partners in KAIROS and other parties to the IRSSA “towards a new relationship between Canada’s Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples, a relationship built on respect, equity, and mutuality.”
“I want to say thank you for helping me and for helping all Canadians to listen, to wake up, and to learn about this sad chapter in our history as a country,” said Archbishop Fred Hiltz of the Anglican Church of Canada. “Thank you for your role in birthing the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation in Winnipeg. Thank you for calling the Government of Canada and the churches who ran the residential schools, including my own, for calling us to account for our participation in an inherently arrogant and flawed policy of assimilation to address the so-called Indian problem, and for every form of abuse experienced by survivors in those schools.”
Rev. Karen Horst of the Presbyterian Church of Canada said she spoke with “mixed emotions.”
“Along with ongoing sadness and shame, we recognize the legacy that has been established, and that the way that the church played a part in all of this,” she said. “But I also am encouraged and am hopeful.”
“I’m encouraged because I know that many more Canadians, and certainly far more Presbyterians, know the legacy of the residential schools, and all of us are better informed because of the work of the commission,” she said. “I’m also encouraged that so many people are deeply committed to carrying on the journey of reconciliation, the journey that’s begun today.”