Reflections on the horrific news from the Kamloops Residential School, from a Catholic


External view of Kamloops Indian Residential School taken at a distance. From Wikipedia Commons.

Some opening notes:


First, I want to take time to acknowledge that this story may be traumatizing and triggering to some. Please take care when reading this. I also wish to express my sincere apologies, recognizing that apologies and prayers alone are only one part, and there is so much more work that needs to be done.


Second, I was literally finished writing this (the first time) when my laptop glitched out on me and totally scrapped the entire piece I was working on. I truly believe this is the evil one at work, trying to prevent me from speaking my piece. I don’t claim to be an expert nor do I claim to have all the answers, but what I hope for this piece is to first stand in solidarity with my Indigenous brothers and sisters and to also call other Catholics to think about how they can move towards reconciliation.

Many of you may have seen the devastating news that has come from the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation this past Thursday, May 27, 2021. I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t look into this story right away. As it started to flood my timeline, and I started to see Americans post about it, I started to think that just maybe, I should take a look.


What I saw was devastating. It filled me with grief, despair, and straight up confusion. How could any person be capable of such evil?


However, for many Indigenous folks, this is a lived reality that has been told over generations. It made me think of how I am when I wake up in the morning: blind, fumbling about looking for the thing that gives me clearer vision.


What we saw on May 27 took people by surprise. We fumbled about in the darkness and were shocked by the clarity. But for the Indigenous community, this Groundhog Day-esque moment is nothing new. And unfortunately, little has changed by way of reparations and reconciliation, despite the Truth and Reconciliation Commission closing in 2015 with 94 Calls to Action.


For this post, I’m not going to spend too much time re-hashing the details, so I encourage you to do your own reading. The article linked above is an excellent start, and I've included some more resources (and footnotes along the way) that hopefully can guide your own, personal learning.

“It is a difficult time to be a Catholic”


This was what someone remarked to me over the weekend.


What we’re seeing in this current moment is indeed devastating and difficult to stomach. The evidence mounting against clergy and religious men and women is staggering. These are people that we trust and view as holy men and women who have taken vows for the service of the Church and love for Christ. And yet, these are the same people who were responsible for the maltreatment and deaths of so many Indigenous boys and girls who went through the residential school system — many of whom did not return home alive.


While it is difficult to wade through this information, I can’t say that I am comfortable with this statement of it being "a difficult time to be a Catholic." As history has shown us, there has been very little recourse where reconciliation and apologies are concerned. The black mark that this places on the church, the sting from this slap on this wrist, will only last so long. But what is difficult — and this is putting it mildly — is the intergenerational trauma that Indigenous families suffered and still continue to suffer at the hands of residential schools and other colonial practices.


Quite simply, it is difficult, period, to be an Indigenous person in a colonized land.

Why talk about the past, and why not just move forward?


The news in wake of the discovery on May 27 has renewed calls for institutions like the Church to take responsibility for the actions and roles taken during the time of residential schools in Canada. Of the 94 Calls to Action, there is a whole section entitled “Church Apologies and Reconciliation” (nos. 58-61). Further, there is also calls for the Church to collaborate and cooperate with the efforts of identifying and tracking down missing children and disclosing burial information (nos. 71-76).


Call to Action 58 stands out as a cry that has been left unanswered: We call upon the Pope to issue an apology to Survivors, their families, and communities for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children in Catholic-run residential schools.” [1] Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in a 2017 trip to the Vatican, discussed this matter with Pope Francis but was unsuccessful in securing a formal apology from the Holy Father. [2]


I think many, including myself at one point in time, have questioned the need for a “formal apology” and what good that actually does. But as I hear more stories like what has come from the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation, I’ve felt my heart change. How can we claim to be a people of faith who claim to defend the dignity of human life, from conception to its natural end if we aren’t willing to stand up for the proven injustices against a population of people? How can reconciliation be achieved when we are not willing to accept responsibility for our actions?


Interestingly enough, Pope Francis himself wrote this in his encyclical Fratelli Tutti:

Nowadays, it is easy to be tempted to turn the page, to say that all these things happened long ago and we should look to the future. For God’s sake, no! We can never move forward without remembering the past; we do not progress without an honest and unclouded memory. [3]

As humans, I think we can all agree that we find it difficult to admit to faults and own up to mistakes. I certainly find it difficult to swallow my pride when I am being corrected. But as St. Thomas Aquinas says, “To love means to consistently will and choose the good of the other.” Sometimes, this means lovingly but firmly calling out and correcting your neighbour where needed.


So here I say, we need to oppose the comfortability of staying in the status quo and hiding behind “a few bad apples from days gone by.” For true reconciliation to take place, we can’t afford to do that. We can’t keep saying that that was then, and this is now. If we leave this unchecked, the Groundhog Day movie will continue to play, and we will never achieve progress because we’re stuck with a clouded memory.


I will note that the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate — one of the orders who had affiliations with much of the residential school system here in Canada — did make a formal and extensive apology in 1997. [4] For added context, the principal of the Kamloops Indian Residential School, Bishop John Fergus O’Grady, was a member of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate.


This is indeed a start, but there is so much more that needs to be done.

St. Paul warned us of this


Many of you may know my affinity for St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. In particular, I have a deep love for his passage in Chapter 12 on “one body, many parts” (1 Corinthians 12:12-27). In this situation, St. Paul’s wisdom again comes into play.


The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you (1 Corinthians 12:21). Since the “discovery” of the Americas, settlers have colonized this land. They saw this continent, seemingly devoid of life, as theirs for the taking: a wide-open frontier, terra nullius, as part of an ongoing "doctrine of discovery". [5]


Upon encountering the Indigenous peoples — the first stewards of this land — systems of oppression were set up. Colonial structures and powers took off, and it became the mission of the colonizer to save the savages from their ways and educate them with their ways. Residential schools are part of this legacy, which we know now was tantamount to genocide. Truly here, we see the settlers’ disposition as being one of superiority towards the Indigenous, saying “I don’t need you” and taking it one step further to either assimilate or destroy.


As St. Paul writes in this chapter, if one member suffers, all members suffer together(1 Corinthians 12:26). We see this now in the intergenerational trauma passed down from one generation to the next. But for the part of those responsible, these acts of violence, abuse, and neglect was never just isolated to one child. Even if the child survived the residential school system, we see how this trauma seeps through every part of the survivor’s life, and how it severely impacts their relationships, families, physical and mental health, and their future prospects. Generations of Indigenous families are suffering.


And for us as Catholics, generations later, we too suffer with them in a different way. We bear the weight and the responsibility of grave sins committed. It is a heavy cross to carry, and yet, one that is the very least we can do.

So what now?


As with many Catholics, I renew my call for our Holy Father to consider making a formal apology to all Indigenous peoples of Canada, especially those Survivors of residential schools and their families.


On a local level, I urge Catholics to continue having these conversations and develop opportunities for meaningful dialogue not just among the laity, but also including clergy and religious. This is not just a problem for one group to solve while another kicks back. Because this is a moment of serious concern that involves the whole Body of Christ, this should be of utmost importance that it is tackled together and in a timely way.


Take the time to read and educate yourselves, especially if you, like me, were taught very little about the residential school system in Canada. I’ve linked some more resources at the bottom of this blog that hopefully will provide you with a start. Please take the time to do your own self-education — do not put the burden on Indigenous communities to explain the significance and trauma of this moment to you.


I’ll close with this: as I prayed my rosary yesterday, all I could think about while praying the Joyful Mysteries was the fifth sorrowful mystery: the crucifixion of Jesus. In particular, Jesus’ words as He hung on the cross rang in my ears: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do (Luke 23:34).


How much is Jesus grieved to see the devastation enacted by His children against other children? How horrific are these actions and how capable are we, as humans and sinners, of enacting violence to the very nature of others? And how much more do we need to stand in solidarity with those members of the Body of Christ who are consistently marginalized due to systems of oppression?


Father, forgive me, for I know not what I do.


As a Catholic, I am grieved, I am troubled, and I am so sorry.


May this be a reckoning moment for all of us. We no longer can afford to continue along the status quo and keep quiet for the sake of feeling comfortable or not wanting to delve into difficult subjects. We cannot hide behind the fact that this happened decades ago and has no bearing on our life right now.


May we seek out forgiveness and reconciliation and take action, not for forgiveness’ sake, but because we truly are a people who believe in the value of human dignity.


Today, as a sister and friend, I wish to call myself and each of you higher. There is so much more we can learn, and at times it may feel overwhelming. But together, we can try and make a difference. May we commit to making that difference, if not for our lifetime, then for the generations to come.


June marks the beginning of National Indigenous History Month in Canada. In the Catholic Church, we dedicate the month to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. I don't think this is a coincidence that we need to take some time to seriously pause, reflect, and ask for serious conversion and reconciliation from His Sacred Heart, and from those who for generations were disadvantaged, marginalized, and forced to assimilate and suffer.

Notes


[1] Call to Action, number 58. (2015). Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Accessed on May 31, 2021 from http://trc.ca/assets/pdf/Calls_to_Action_English2.pdf (PDF).

[2] Fisher, M. (2017, May 29). “In Vatican visit, Trudeau secures platitudes but no apology for residential schools.” National Post. Accessed on May 31, 2021 from https://nationalpost.com/news/politics/pope-francis-expressed-enthusiasm-for-working-with-canada-on-residential-school-apology-pm-says.

[3] Pope Francis. (2020, October 3). Chapter 7, paragraph 249. Fratelli Tutti. Accessed on May 31, 2021 from https://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20201003_enciclica-fratelli-tutti.html.

[4] Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. (1991). An apology to the First Nations of Canada by the Oblate Conference of Canada. Accessed on May 31, 2021 from https://www.cccb.ca/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/oblate_apology_english.pdf (PDF).

[5] Assembly of First Nations (2018). Dismantling the doctrine of discovery. Accessed on June 1, 2021 from https://www.afn.ca/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/18-01-22-Dismantling-the-Doctrine-of-Discovery-EN.pdf (PDF).


Other resources for more reading