Kamloops residents and First Nations people gather to listen to drummers and singers at a memorial in front of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia. CNS photo/Dennis Owen, Reuters

Editorial: We must listen

  • July 2, 2021

There will be more … more unmarked graves, more grief, more anger, more shame.

We cannot hide from the wrong done to Canada’s Indigenous people or dismiss it to history books, and nor should we try. For years, we have known about the evils of residential schools, the government’s policy of assimilation that tried to wipe out native culture and the over-zealous embrace of that policy by Christian churches in administering these schools. The Catholic Church ran less than half of the residential schools identified by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but that doesn’t make it any less guilty or lighten its load of responsibility to seek justice for the First Nations.

The discovery of children’s graves in Kamloops, B.C., was a disheartening wake-up call. The discovery of hundreds more in Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan made us realize that we may have only just begun to scratch the surface of the truth. The whole truth we must face comes with the faces and names of every child that ever lived and died in that system and we must pursue it whatever the cost.

We must listen to the stories of the survivors … really listen … and understand their pain. They speak not only for themselves, but for all those unnamed children in unmarked graves.

At a press conference held by the Cowessess First Nation, 80-year-old elder Florence Sparvier recalled her days at Marieval residential school, following in the footsteps of her mother and grandmother. Here a just a few excerpts of what she had to say:

“We learned. … They pounded it into us. And really, they were very mean. When I say pounding, I mean pounding. Those nuns were very mean to us.

“We had to learn how to be Roman Catholic. We couldn’t say our own little blessings the way we said it at home. We had our own way of honouring ourselves and Mother Earth in our own homes when we were little, but we had to leave all that after.

“They told us what to say. They told us about a new being that was supposed to be our ultimate saviour. But the ones we had in our school, they were not nice … they were very condemning about our people … they told us our people, our parents, our grandparents … they didn’t have a way to be spiritual because we were all heathens.

“They were putting us down as a people, so we learned how to not like who we were.

“So that has gone on and on ... and it’s still going on, because we couldn’t teach our people, our own families, how to look after themselves physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. ... They made us think different and feel different. A lot of the pain that we see in our people right now, comes from there.

“They made us believe we didn’t have souls.”

This is tough to hear, to know that not just as a Church, but as a nation we stripped a people of their dignity and culture.

We need to listen to these stories, again and again. From truth, the slow journey to reconciliation begins.

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.