TORONTO (CCN) — Taking responsibility for a deeply painful history may be difficult, but it’s the Jesuit thing to do.
On June 22 Canada’s Jesuits gathered in Toronto with First Nations people to make a sort of examination of conscience focused on the relationship between Jesuits and Canadian Aboriginal people — a relationship which stretches back to 1611. The conference at the University of Toronto’s St. Michael’s College was called Truth, Reconciliation and Hope. Rather than narrowly focus on what the Jesuits did and didn’t do, organizers wanted to look at the bigger picture of how Jesuits were a part of Canada’s history of broken promises, broken treaties and broken lives epitomized by the 150-year history of residential schools.
The Jesuits ran Charles Garnier residential school for Aboriginal boys in Spanish, Ont., from 1913 to 1958. It was across the street from St. Joseph’s, a girls’ school operated by the Daughters of Mary and the Diocese of Sault Ste. Marie. Canada’s English-speaking Jesuits are not part of the 50-plus Catholic entities named in the 2005 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. They came to an earlier, separate agreement with survivors of their school.
Residential school survivor Rosella Kinoshameg was appreciative of the opportunity to look at the future of reconciliation.
For Kinoshameg hope for the future lies in recovering the values, traditions and language that she managed to keep in her family despite limits the residential schools placed on her and her siblings.
“It’s a good thing that my dad was very smart. He brought us up with those teachings, living those teachings. He brought us up so we knew how to live,” she told The Catholic Register after the conference. “You have to go back to those values, those teachings. That’s where our hope will be.”
Rather than concentrate exclusively on the residential schools, Canadians need to come to terms with their entire history of colonization, said veteran Cree leader Noel Starblanket.
“We’re here for the truth, after all,” he said. “The truth is not pretty, we all know that.”
Starblanket urged the audience of several hundred in the university lecture hall to think hard about the treaties as they apply to both First Nations and non-Aboriginal Canadians.
“They made these promises in the eyes of God. Do they not believe in their God?” he asked. “Let’s honour our treaties, all of us, in the name of God.”
Timmins-James Bay MP Charlie Angus similarly urged a wider focus on the entire relationship between non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal Canadians.
“(The federal government) wanted to offload the responsibility (for delivering the education promised under various treaties), which is why they used the churches,” Angus said.
A pattern of sidestepping or minimizing treaty obligations — for health care, education, welfare and basic community infrastructure — has resulted in the crisis of youth suicides in Northern Ontario, Angus said. There have been more than 700 suicide attempts in the James Bay region since 2009. The federal education grant per student comes to $8,000 per school year in Attawapiskat compared to $16,000 per student in provincially run schools in Timmins, Angus said.
“What kind of nation squanders its children?” Angus asked.
Ten years ago the then-Liberal government negotiated the Kelowna Accord, which would have delivered $5.1 billion in education and health care funding to Aboriginal communities, said former prime minister Paul Martin. But a change in government meant the accord was never implemented.
“We lost a decade,” Martin said. “It’s very important that the new government be given a chance to pick that decade up and make up for lost time.”
When people argue that Aboriginal governments can’t be trusted with the money, or that Canada can’t afford that level of expenditure on social services, they simply don’t know what they’re talking about, said the former finance minister.
“If you don’t put the money into it then the decline is going to be faster than you think. We can afford it, but we have to do it now,” he said.
Aboriginal Canada is the youngest segment of the Canadian population. Failing to invest in Aboriginal communities is a failure to invest in the future, Martin said.
“We have put them in poverty, but they haven’t given up on their culture, they haven’t given up on their traditions and they haven’t given up on their beliefs. It’s one of the most incredible acts of courage I’ve ever seen,” Martin said.
Jesuit efforts should be seen in the context of a broader discussion among Canada’s bishops and all the religious orders about how to move forward now that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has handed in its final report, including 94 recommendations for future reconciliation, Jesuit provincial superior Peter Bisson said.