Editorial: Take action — now

  • June 3, 2021

It came like a punch in the gut. The news of the discovery of the bodies of 215 children on the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School have shaken us to the core. How could this happen in Canada? How could this happen under the roof of an institution run by Catholic religious orders? Despite all the stories of abuse at residential schools, despite the chronicling of horrors in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report of 2015, despite the history of systemic racism that has victimized Canada’s Indigenous people … this news rips opens wounds that have not even come close to healing.

We read of the heartbreak, the sadness, the anger at this discovery and the thought that there are doubtless more bodies unaccounted for at this and other residential schools, more families and communities that must bear the weight of grief. The TRC verified that at least 4,100 children, ripped from their communities in the name of assimilation, died in the residential school system and the real toll is likely much higher.

There were more than 150,000 Indigenous children in residential schools, government-sponsored and operated by Canada’s churches, many of them Catholic. After more than a hundred years, the last of the schools did not close until 1996. 

Without question, there is a responsibility to uncover the whole truth of the scope of this national tragedy. We must also use this discovery in Kamloops to re-double our efforts at reconciliation. Shock and grief are not enough. There must be action — politically, spiritually, socially.

The Church has long recognized it must play a pivotal role in this, as it should.  Our Lady of Guadalupe Circle, a coalition of religious and Indigenous members, has opened fresh channels of communication that seek to foster healing. Our schools had created Indigenous Studies programs to gain a greater understanding of this country’s history and its cultural mosaic. There are ongoing initiatives in dioceses across the country to reach out and work with Indigenous communities.

Is it enough? No. The work of reconciliation is vital to our mission as Catholics and as Canadians. The news out of Kamloops should only solidify our resolve to foster a healing and nurturing future with our Indigenous brothers and sisters.

As expected, there are renewed calls for Pope Francis to make a personal apology to Indigenous leaders in Canada for the Church’s role in residential schools. The Vatican and Canada’s bishops have made it abundantly clear that they recognize and regret the suffering initiated at these schools, and the papal directive has clearly been toward encouraging reconciliation.

Regardless of any decision around a papal visit, it is quite clear the task of the Canadian Church has been laid out.

“The passage of time does not erase the suffering that touches the Indigenous communities affected,” said Vancouver Archbishop J. Michael Miller, “and we pledge to do whatever we can to heal that suffering.”

It is a pledge that must never be broken or taken lightly.

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