Northern bishops to support aboriginal commission

  • February 15, 2008

{mosimage}OTTAWA - Despite concerns, eight Northern Catholic bishops have decided to participate in a national awareness campaign in advance of public hearings on Indian residential schools.

“The Northern bishops and the bishops in general have realized it’s important to take part in the National Leaders’ Tour,” said Keewatin-Le Pas Archbishop Sylvain Lavoie.

The tour will launch March 2nd in Ottawa, then travel to Vancouver, Saskatoon and Winnipeg to promote the upcoming Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that is part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. The TRC is expected to start hearings this year, though the chair and two commissioners have not yet been chosen.

The tour was suggested by the other churches involved in the agreement — United, Anglican and Presbyterian. It will also involve the Assembly of First Nations (AFN).

The bishops, who represent the eight dioceses that are part of the so-called 50 Catholic entities that ran residential schools, made the decision during a Feb. 8-11 meeting in Calgary. Bishops will not travel with the tour, however. Bishops, as will provincials of religious orders, will participate when the tour comes to their region, Lavoie said.

Lavoie said AFN National Chief Phil Fontaine had encouraged them to join the tour when the Northern bishops met with him for the first time in Ottawa Jan. 30. Fontaine is interested in the educational aspect of the TRC, so it can “write the missing chapter” in Canadian history, Lavoie said.

“It has to be the full story,” the archbishop said. “That doesn’t take away from the negative, the hurt, the abuse. We’re ready to accept responsibility for whatever went wrong but we don’t think it’s fair that people all get painted with same brush.

“A lot of good things happened that need to be told,” he said, noting many religious men and women gave their lives to serve Canada’s native people. “It would be unjust to only have part of the story.”

Lavoie admitted there was some initial reluctance. Some chiefs in their dioceses had warned them against pre-empting the TRC or letting an advance tour “do the work” of the commission.

The bishops had also been concerned about the differences in structure between the highly decentralized Catholic dioceses and religious orders involved in the settlement and the other churches with national structures and can speak with one voice. The bishops can only speak for themselves. That presents a “messaging” problem, he said.

The other is in the essential differences between the Catholic run schools and the ones run by the other churches. They “basically had employees” running their schools, Lavoie said.

“We had members of our own communities, brothers and sisters, like family,” Lavoie said, noting that some have been quite wounded by the overwhelmingly negative portrayal of the schools.

A native elder told Lavoie she had observed how religious sisters would teach all day, then supervise 60 children until bedtime, seven days a week. They too were victims of a faulty system.

“In those days they didn’t call it burnout. They went to their rooms and cried their eyes out,” he said.

“Suppose nothing was done, no effort was done to provide an education,” he said. He believes there would have been great liability on the part of churches and government for failing to act.

Lavoie said his diocese or individual parishes have received $8,000 in donations from residential schools survivors out of the common experience payments they have received from the government. That indicates to him that some of them remain thankful for some aspects of the education and care they received.

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