It must feel as though the fury of hell has come to southern British Columbia, where scorching temperatures have broken records and giant fires have engulfed First Nations communities and cities already dealing with the devastating discovery of the remains of ancestors of those in the Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc First Nation.
The open mourning, the coming together and the steps toward healing among the Tk’emlúpsemc – “the people of the confluence” of the North and South Thompson Rivers – is happening as smoke from the smouldering First Nations community of Lytton, just hours down the highway, blows into Kamloops.
And all this comes as the burning of Catholic churches continues, and statues of Sir John A. Macdonald, Egerton Ryerson and Queen Victoria fall across the country like dominoes.
It is almost as if a great reckoning is taking place – one that has simmered below the surface since Confederation. Finding those little souls in Kamloops has touched off the discovery of so many more, including 751 unmarked graves near Saskatchewan’s former Marieval Indian Residential School, and nine-year-old Emma Laffort somewhere in Thunder Bay’s St. Andrew’s Catholic Cemetery. Our children are crying out to be found so that their spirits can be brought home and rest.
There are efforts under way among many Indigenous families to hear survivors’ stories once again, and to take down names – of the lost, and of the alleged perpetrators who may have committed crimes.
So when does the accountability begin?
As I write this, my friend Suzanne Shoush – a powerhouse Black and Indigenous physician and a descendant of survivors of the St. Mary’s school in Mission, B.C. – is sitting across from Cardinal Thomas Collins in Toronto. In her hands is a letter with 16 pages worth of signatures, all from within the Catholic hospital network. Dr. Shoush is with the St. Michael’s Hospital Academic Health Team; the letter was written by members of the First Nations, Inuit and Métis Community Advisory Panel for Unity Health Toronto.
It states that Indian residential schools and Indian hospitals – there were 20 of these fully functioning and segregated institutions in Canada by the 1960s – were mostly run by the Catholic Church, and that they caused immeasurable harm, including leaving a legacy of structural racism in the health care system.
The letter makes six comprehensive asks, including for an ever-elusive apology to Indigenous Peoples that Pope Francis seems unable to deliver on Canadian soil. It also asks for the fulfilment of a side deal as part of the 2007 Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement, which called for the church to raise $25-million in funds to go toward the healing of survivors. The church was only able to raise less than $4-million – this, despite the hundreds of millions spent on new churches in Canada.
The fact that the church was able to get out of paying that full sum – in 2015, a Saskatchewan judge ruled that a federal lawyer’s snafu allowed the institution to walk away from the agreement – shows how the sins of church and state have ugly, deep tentacles you have to hunt for in order to sever. Just six days after taking office in 2015, Justin Trudeau’s government – which, you may remember, had just named a First Nations woman as the country’s minister of justice – quietly dropped his predecessor’s government’s appeal of the ruling that released the church from its obligations. No reasons were given.
The Liberal government argued at the time that it had no legal alternative and that the initial release was the Conservatives’ fault, but Mr. Trudeau was in power when the appeal was withdrawn. This raises the question: Why did his Justice Department drop the appeal, especially since Mr. Trudeau has taken up the Harper government’s other costly court battles against Indigenous compensation claims?
I am grateful the Prime Minister has demanded an apology from the Catholic Church. It is the right thing to do. But so too would be acknowledging one’s sins from the past and making them right.
One of the most devastating things the Catholic Church stole from Indigenous Peoples was our spirituality – our ability to maintain the teachings of thousands of years. It is hard to believe that the church could think that God was on its side when it stole 150,000 children and tried to erase who they were.
Elder Sam Achneepineskum, a survivor of three residential schools, said this to me on Thursday: “They hire lawyers and then more lawyers to convince themselves they didn’t do wrong. Yet it is easy to take the good road. It is Jesus’s teachings – not about image and creating false senses of self. How can anyone who calls himself a Christian not see that?”
Now those are words to live by.
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