Native reconciliation journey begins

  • March 7, 2008

{mosimage}OTTAWA - Remembering the Children: the Aboriginal and Church Leaders’ Tour kicked off in Ottawa March 2 to raise awareness of the upcoming Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Indian residential schools.

The launch began with a Sunday ecumenical service inside the Grand Hall of the Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Que., that brought native leaders together with leaders of the Anglican, United and Presbyterian Churches.

Though Catholic participation was uncertain until less than a month before the tour launch, Catholic bishops and representatives of religious orders that ran schools have decided to take part.

On March 3, the United, Presbyterian and Anglican leaders joined Assembly of First Nations’ Alberta Regional Chief Wilton Littlechild and Ottawa Archbishop Terrence Prendergast at a news conference on Parliament Hill.

“We’re pleased to have this opportunity to walk with the churches on this journey, a journey of reconciliation with our people and all Canadians,” said Littlechild, who said the churches were needed to help aboriginal Canadians “write the missing chapter of our history involving residential schools.”

“As churches in Canada we acknowledge and confess our failures in the Indian residential schools, which aimed to socialize and Christianize First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples,” said Anglican Primate Archbishop Fred Hiltz. “We failed them. We failed ourselves. We failed God. We failed because of our racism and because of the belief that white ways were superior to aboriginal ways. We apologize for these failures.”

United Church Moderator David Guiliano pointed out that while First Nations people are “aware of their need for healing,” they are “calling us to acknowledge our need for healing, too.”

He said church people “need to be healed of tunnel vision and cultural superiority” and asked for Canadians to imagine the agony and outrage of having government agencies sweep into their communities and carry their children away to schools in a foreign culture.

In the residential schools, native students were deprived of their language, dislocated from their families and often faced physical, emotional and sexual abuse, he said. Survivors were left without “traditional family skills and values,” he said, so “the suffering has been passed on to the subsequent generations of residential school survivors.”

Prendergast spoke on behalf of Archbishop Gerard Pettipas, president of the 50 Catholic entities that were signatories to the settlement agreement. Speaking in French, he stressed the Catholic Church’s commitment to healing and reconciliation.

Asked why the Catholic Church had not issued an apology for residential schools, Prendergast said the church “has expressed its sorrow and apologies in various places.” Pointing to the decentralized nature of the Catholic Church’s structure as a federation of dioceses and religious communities, as well as the parallel diversity of structures representing Canada’s native people, he said the Catholic Church’s apology “had to come from the various entities that are there in the appropriate localities where people can hear and see the bishop or the religious leaders.”

The decentralized nature of the Catholic Church had been one reason why the eight northern bishops who are part of the 50 Catholic entities were reluctant until early February to take part in the national leaders’ tour. The bishops also had concerns over messaging. Though they acknowledge the harm done at residential schools, they know members of religious communities and priests gave their lives to serving native peoples in the schools. They, too have a story to tell, one that is not entirely negative.

The tour stopped in Vancouver on March 5, and was to visit Saskatoon on March 9 and Winnipeg on March 10.

Though the commissioners have not yet been chosen for the commission and there is no definite starting date, Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl told the House of Commons the prime minister had promised “an apology on behalf of Canadians that will be meaningful and respectful.”

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