The message is clear outside St. Michael’s Cathedral rectory June 20 as Catholics join in calling out the Church for its role in residential schools. Photo by Michael Swan

Catholics look for action and answers

  • June 24, 2021

As the country continues to wake up to the truth that there has been little or no reconciliation with Indigenous people, Catholics are also questioning their Church’s record.

Many have begun taking action to right past wrongs.

For Indigenous Catholic Deacon Rennie Nahanee, the 215 unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Residential School aren’t news — he expected such finds — but they are a spur to action. Nahanee is throwing his effort into developing Indigenous liturgies — not just some drumming and smudging at a few Sunday Masses, but full-blown Indigenous funeral rites, weddings, baptisms and house blessings that come out of First Nations’ culture.

“The Catholic Church that took away our language needs to help with this change Canada-wide, to bring our culture back,” Nahanee told The Catholic Register. “They replaced our language with their English. We want to replace their English with our language in the liturgy. Seems fair to me.”

Others are looking for a way to talk to their bishops, including about a dozen orange-clad Catholics who have been staging Sunday evening vigils outside the St. Michael’s Cathedral rectory.

At the June 20 vigil, group leader Madeline Burghardt offered a prayer remembering the fathers, mothers and grandparents who were denied the opportunity to even mourn their children buried at residential schools across Canada.

The vigil group has a clear message for Canada’s Catholic bishops.

“We want an apology from the Catholic Church of Canada,” Burghardt said, and she’s in no mood to argue over whether such a thing as the Catholic Church of Canada exists. While there is a Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, each diocese is run independently.

She also wants to see documents released and clearly discernible reconciliation across the country.

“It’s not just about an apology,” she said.

Paula Monahan believes the only way to get the bishops’ attention is with the collection basket. Monahan is trying to persuade her fellow Catholics to “organize their own collection,” with money going directly to Indigenous organizations as a sign that Catholics want reconciliation, she said.

Monahan also prioritizes a papal apology on Canadian soil, as demanded in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action. “Catholics are outraged that the Canadian bishops have not yet managed, over decades, to get the Pope to make an apology,” she said. “I don’t hear or see any evidence that the Canadian bishops are begging on their knees for an apology.”

“I don't know whether I feel any more guilty as a Catholic than I do as a Canadian for what happened with the schools,” said Jody Garneau of Abbotsford, B.C. “Canadians have to realize this wasn’t a Church project. It was a government project entrusted to churches and the Catholic Church was one of many, although the larger part.”

Garneau started the Facebook group Catholics for Truth and Reconciliation, which gathered over 1,200 members in just two weeks. It’s a place for Catholics to wrestle with the issues and the media storm of the Kamloops discovery, she said.

“How do you explain your faith to your children, who are going to school and hearing about this?” Garneau asked. “How do you explain to your co-workers and your neighbours that you’re Catholic and you’re not OK with this, but you can still be Catholic.”

Garneau is not happy with how Church officials have explained the 30-year history of apologies from various Catholic religious orders and a few dioceses. “It feels like spin and that’s not what we want,” she said.

As someone who once worked for a parish and has been involved in adult faith formation, Garneau can claim deep Catholic ties across the country. She takes an apology as the starting point for any process of reconciliation.

“I take my measure for that (need for an apology) from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and from the survivors,” she said. “What are they asking for?”

But Garneau doesn’t just blame the bishops. Ordinary Catholics have failed to look at what the TRC discovered through five years of testimony from thousands of survivors.

“It’s embarrassing that we’re even surprised that there are bodies and gravesites,” she said. “Because that’s clearly in the Truth and Reconciliation documents. That is part of the testimony…. Everyone has heard of Truth and Reconciliation — at least heard of it. They certainly weren’t participating. That’s unfortunate.”

(NOTE: A previous version of this story incorrectly attributed  quotes from Jody Garneau to the wrong person. Garneau founded the Facebook group Catholics for Truth and Reconciliation.)

Last modified on June 27, 2021

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