Cowessess First Nation Chief Cadmus Delorme announces the discovery of the unmarked graves in a videoconference June 24. CNS photo/screen shot

Face to face with ‘brutal’ truth of residential schools

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  • June 30, 2021

“For better or worse, the gravesite findings are bringing us face-to-face with the brutal side of the residential schools,” Regina Archbishop Don Bolen told The Catholic Register the day after headlines screamed 751 more unmarked graves found at the Cowessess First Nation, less than two hours’ drive east of Holy Rosary Cathedral in southern Saskatchewan.

“Words fail,” Bolen began in a June 24 letter to Cowessess Chief Cadmus Delorme and the community. “The news is overwhelming and I can only imagine the pain and waves of emotion that you and your people are experiencing right now.”

Three years ago the Archdiocese of Regina had put up $70,000 to aid the Cowessess First Nation in a search through records to find the missing and dead. Bolen is still looking for other ways to be helpful.

Delorme reports that members of the Cowessess community recall a priest in the 1960s ordered the headstones removed from the cemetery. “I didn’t know about this until yesterday,” said Fr. Ken Thorson, provincial superior of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the order that ran the Marieval Residential School and 47 others across Canada.

“If it happened, it’s inexcusable that it happened. I certainly don’t question the memory of the people from Cowessess. But at the same time, I can’t give an answer because I don’t have any information. Whether or not it was an Oblate, what was his name, when it happened — those are things I don’t know yet.” 

There’s nothing the Church can do except be as open as possible, said Bolen.

“How do we acknowledge what they’re finding? How do we express solidarity with them at a time when there is room for engagement?” asked Bolen. “There’s an invitation for as many people to be engaged in this work as possible.”

Rather than limiting the Catholic response to religious orders and dioceses directly tied to running residential schools, Bolen hopes to see all of Canada’s Catholics take up the challenge as even more graves inevitably come to light.

“We’re all treaty people,” he said. “Indigenous people don’t have a problem, we have a societal problem…. It would be great if the whole Canadian Church, each in their own context, could ask, ‘How can we become engaged in this question?’ ”

Thorson sees signs that the whole Church in Canada is beginning to acknowledge its past and its responsibility.

“I’ve heard some of the bishops, the openness from some of the bishops that I haven’t heard in recent years,” Thorson said. “I’m hearing it a little more now and I’m grateful for that. But I think we need to hear it some more.”

Bolen believes all Canadians, including Catholics, should be seeking out a direct relationship with Indigenous people and thinking about how they can respond to the 94 Calls to Action issued by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015.

“It needs to begin with taking the lead from Indigenous peoples,” he said. “Those Calls to Action, there’s a range of them, right? They invite education. They invite engagement on Indigenous spirituality. And they invite dealing with cemeteries.”

The Catholic response can’t just be about the past. Bolen hopes parishes, Catholic schools and other institutions do more to address the present and future reality of Indigenous Canadians.

“We’re dealing with solidarity and justice issues as Indigenous peoples try to address the many ways in which they are systematically at the losing end in terms of societal indicators of well-being,” he said. “The beauty of the Calls to Action is that they are specific proposals addressed directly to churches that were involved and operating residential schools with Indigenous-led steps that can be taken, for us to move forward from truth to apology to amends to engagement to trust to reconciliation.”

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