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Children's shoes line a memorial on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School June 6, 2021. The remains of 215 children, some as young as 3 years old, were found at the site in May in Kamloops, British Columbia. CNS photo/Jennifer Gauthier, Reuters

Glen Argan: We have a duty to listen to survivors

  • June 10, 2021

Residents of my Edmonton neighbourhood are setting up front yard signs of solidarity to honour the 215 former students at the Kamloops Residential School whose remains were found outside the school. As well, demonstrations were held in some centres regarding the detection of these unmarked graves. This discovery has moved people in a way that earlier revelations about the schools did not.

Perhaps the callous handling of the deaths of these children has finally stirred revulsion. No grave markers, no option to return the bodies to their homes, often not even a note to the parents stating that their child had died.

Perhaps Canadians are now sick of the way Indigenous people have been and are treated. The missing and murdered indigenous women. Racist attitudes among police toward First Nations, Métis and Inuit people. The poverty, the suicides, the lack of drinkable water, the substandard health care and education. And then revelations about residential schools which never end.

I recall the tear-filled testimonies of survivors at the 2014 Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in Edmonton. A false belief that the survivors’ tears have since been wiped away ignores the depth of the pain. Such wounds will not be healed by any one act or apology. Every new act of racism or cultural superiority is likely to cause additional suffering.

For too long, we have heard only the stories of the conquerors. In recent years — and it is only years — the stories of the oppressed have begun to be heard. Our duty is to listen to those stories attentively. The Gospel gives priority to the voices of those who suffer injustice. Christ speaks through those voices.

The residential schools are today gone, and perhaps we of recent generations do not carry guilt for a travesty we did not cause. But attitudes of cultural and religious superiority, which gave rise to these institutions, persist. The changing perspectives of recent decades have tempered our iron-fisted clinging to the myth of Catholic superiority. Where such clinging remains, we must repent of it and act with greater humility.

But if today’s individuals do not bear blame for the deadly sins of the past, our institutions do. Church bodies, such as numerous religious orders and some dioceses, have apologized for their role in operating residential schools and with the resources available to them are trying to make amends. The federal government too has apologized but is now in court trying to prevent transferring records about the schools to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. It continues to ignore its treaty obligations and to underfund on-reserve programs. While his government dawdles, the prime minister holds the Catholic Church solely accountable for the ongoing injustice.

The Church does have much to do. Its national fundraising “campaign” to raise funds for reconciliation fell far short of its goal, and grassroots efforts to foster reconciliation are lacking. Many want Pope Francis to apologize on behalf of the entire Catholic community for the Church’s role in the schools. Have we forgotten that Pope John Paul II twice issued a general apology for the Church’s mistreatment of Indigenous people in Canada? Why does Pope Francis express sorrow, but not apologize, for the actions of the Church specific to the residential schools?

If the Church is serious about being an instrument of reconciliation in a hurting world, a papal apology would show that it takes that role seriously. Ordinary Catholics are expected to seek forgiveness through the Sacrament of Reconciliation annually. Why does the Church hold itself above such an obligation?

The past cannot be undone, but we can make amends and strive for a better future. In Canada, that future includes healing and justice for Indigenous people. It means apologizing again and again. More than that, it means acting with purpose to rectify the manifold injustices which persist. Government and the Church must build a new covenant with Indigenous people.

Christ is born in broken bark,
Kidnapped by colonial coadjutors.
Gone are sweetgrass smudges,
Gone are brothers, sisters, family, friends.
Welcome to hunger, illness, abuse and tears,
Terror, trauma, tattered trust and tragedy.
Evil festers in deadly darkness.
Soaring eagle shot to the ground.
Gitchi Manitou in an unmarked grave.
Resilience sparks resurrection’s flame.

- Glen Argan

(Argan writes from Edmonton.)

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