WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.
In the absence of a papal apology for the Catholic church’s role in the atrocities of residential schools, the Northwest Territories’ bishop is offering his own.
“I’m deeply, deeply sorry,” Bishop Jon Hansen of the Mackenzie-Fort Smith Diocese said on Tuesday.
“We are representatives of a church that is complicit, is involved in those children’s deaths, and so we have to own that.
“We have to grapple with what that means for us, and we have to move forward and do what this time in history is asking of us,” Hansen said. “That is to atone for whatever wrong was done.”
Since the discovery at a former residential school site in Kamloops, B.C., of what are believed to be the unmarked burial sites of an estimated 215 children’s remains, a new spotlight has been cast upon the Catholic church, which ran more than half of the federal government’s residential schools. The Anglican church also operated schools, and has apologized.
The residential school system existed from 1831 until 1997.
The North is home to thousands of Catholics and Anglicans, a great number of whom are Indigenous. Feelings surrounding faith, and the church’s hand in the brutalities committed at residential schools, are varied and complicated.
‘Shame on the pope’
Elder Ruth Mercredi, a healer and counselor at the Arctic Indigenous Wellness Foundation’s healing camp in Yellowknife, is a residential school survivor.
Inside a warm tent at the camp, Mercredi sets aside her beading before she speaks about what she views as a double standard in the church.
“One of the things that we were taught when we were young from the church is don’t hurt the children.
“That was the number one law, and they don’t follow their own laws at all, and it’s really degrading to watch that,” she said.
“Our elders are saying, ‘shame on the Pope.’ Shame on him for not coming forward, you know, and taking responsibility, because the whole world knows that this is happening, and what’s been done to the Indigenous people.”
‘Very disappointed’ in lack of apology
Mercredi is “very disappointed” that Pope Francis hasn’t apologized.
Last Sunday, the pontiff expressed his “closeness to the Canadian people, who have been traumatized” by the discovery in Kamloops, but stopped short of offering an apology.
This week, National Chief Perry Bellegarde of the Assembly of First Nations and Vice-President David Chartrand of the Métis National Council said they’re planning a visit to the Vatican this fall to seek an apology from the Pope.
Dëneze Nakehk’o, an educator, was master of ceremonies at a march in Yellowknife last week honouring the children lost in Kamloops. He said he’s not waiting around for an apology from the church.
“If you wait for them, you’re just going to be disappointed,” he said. “As a Dene person, we have our own ways … of spiritual connections, and those things have sustained us before Jesus.”
Nakehk’o acknowledged that many people in N.W.T. have strong ties to the church, and that his intention in speaking out against the institution is not to make people feel badly.
But priests and nuns, he said, “did horrific, horrific things to people that look like me, to my father, my mother and my aunties and uncles, and a lot of other people out there, so I don’t want anything to do with that.”
He said he wants churches to return the land they hold, and release the documents they keep related to residential schools.
Nakehk’o also said the world must listen to and believe residential school survivors.
“But please, have kindness and generosity in your heart, and don’t expect these survivors or Indigenous people to do all the heavy, emotional lifting for you,” he said.
“We’re strong and resilient, but we don’t want to have to keep proving it over and over again.”
These churches lied to us, practiced cultural genocide.– Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya
Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya has called for an international investigation into deaths of children at residential schools. He wants the truth from Catholic and Anglican churches.
“These churches lied to us, practiced cultural genocide,” he said.
Yakeleya wants the pope to “come and meet with us face to face.”
Papal apology not a ‘magic cure,’ says Catholic bishop
Bishop Hansen said he’s expressed his frustration and disappointment in the past at the lack of a papal apology for residential schools.
Though he doesn’t think the gesture would be “a magic cure,” he said if residential school survivors and “most Canadians” ask for an apology, then he would support it.
Hansen also said his diocese would co-operate with any investigation into deaths at residential schools, and would put its records up for an audit, if that’s what Indigenous communities want.
Bishop David Parsons of the Diocese of the Arctic, the Anglican church in N.W.T., Nunavut and Nunavik, said the church, and Canadians more broadly, need to be accountable and “own up” to wrong doings.
He said that means listening to survivors and their communities.
Parsons said while some people are upset with the church and want it to “just to disappear,” others want a stronger church presence.
“I’m hearing that people are wanting us to be more involved, and the majority of these people are people that have been in residential schools,” he said.
Parsons also made an apology this week.
“I’m sorry for what the church has done and I’m sorry for the involvement, but just saying sorry and apologizing is not enough,” he said, adding “our Indigenous brothers and sisters” need to be listened to.
Apology isn’t enough
An apology isn’t enough for Mercredi either.
“For me, because of all the … horrible things that happened to our people, it’s hard to forgive right now,” she said.
Mercredi wants more actions, like the returning of land and support for Indigenous language revitalization.
“Sorry just don’t cut it anymore,” she said.
“Our people are struggling, and they’re on the streets, and a lot of our people are questioning their faith now.”
Support is available for anyone affected by the effects of residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.
The Indian Residential School Survivors Society (IRSSS) can be contacted toll-free at 1-800-721-0066.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.
The NWT Help Line offers free support to residents of the Northwest Territories, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It is 100% free and confidential. The NWT Help Line also has an option for follow-up calls. Residents can call the help line at 1-800-661-0844.
In Nunavut, the Kamatsiaqtut Help Line is open 24 hours a day at 1-800-265-3333. People are invited to call for any reason.
In Yukon, mental health services are available to those in both Whitehorse and in rural Yukon communities through Mental Wellness and Substance Use Services. Yukoners can schedule Rapid Access Counselling supports in Whitehorse and all MWSU community hubs by calling 1-867-456-3838.
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