Shoes and toys were laid on ruins at he old Holy Cross Church in Wiikwemkoong on Manitoulin Island. Photo courtesy of Rosella Kinoshameg

Gerry Turcotte: Carrying the bones

  • June 11, 2021

The discovery of 215 bodies of children in unmarked graves on the site of the former Kamloops Residential School in British Columbia understandably triggered a national response of outrage and mourning. Less understandable is why this particular discovery has unleashed an outpouring of grief and accountability by community leaders and politicians when the evidence of these atrocities is so well known, and when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Report highlighted this issue for special mention.

Somehow, though, the Kamloops story has resonated in a different way, and having done so has opened a path for our communities to take stock and to move towards understanding and healing.

Residential schools, of course, are a blight on Canada’s history and a stain on the Catholic Church in particular. It is important to acknowledge, too, that this isn’t “ancient” history. Like the sex-abuse crisis, this is a contemporary as well as an historical phenomenon, with some residential schools closing as late as the mid-1990s.

Over 150,000 First Nation, Métis and Inuit children were taken from their families and forced to attend residential schools run by Christian churches and the Canadian government, and the TRC estimates that over 6,000 of these children died. One chilling revelation is that the plans for many of the residential schools included a cemetery, and we may want to imagine how our communities would feel today if the design of every new school in our suburbs — in Toronto, say, or Calgary — also came with a graveyard attached.

Although some type of removal practice existed as early as the 17th century, Canada’s official policy on child abduction came into effect in, and Residential schools operated from, the 1800s until 1996. The goal of the schools was to strip Indigenous youth of their language, their culture and their identity, and while some critics have baulked at the term genocide to describe the practice, the goals identified under the government’s policies literally align with the definition. And while Anglican, United, Methodist and Presbyterian churches all participated in the practice, there is no question that the Catholic Church was the dominant force in the administration of over 60 per cent of the schools. As such, and understandably, a specific weight and responsibility rests on the shoulders of our Church’s leaders to address, and redress, the sins of the past.

This is certainly a call that Indigenous elders have made, and a specific recommendation of the TRC Report in 2015 — that the Church, and our Pope, issue a formal apology on Canadian soil. It is noteworthy that Pope Benedict had personally expressed his sorrow to Canadian Indigenous leaders in 2009 at the Vatican, but given that Pope Francis has proffered apologies to Indigenous communities elsewhere in the world, it has confounded many that the same was not done in Canada. Some lawmakers have suggested that, in the wake of the costly settlements because of the sex-abuse crisis, an apology for residential schools might trigger financially crippling reparations, and that this may be the reason for the Vatican’s hesitancy. We have to pray that this isn’t the reason.

In one of the best-known passages of the Bible, Ezekiel 37: 1-14, Ezekiel is taken by God to see the valley of the dry bones. Here he is presented with the lost souls whose bones are forgotten and unloved. But God tells Ezekiel to speak to the bones, and through the speaking of the Word “the bones come together,” the flesh comes upon them and then breath comes into them, so that “they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.”

In Ezekiel, the story promises the rebirth of the Israelites, dispirited by their stolen land and their eradicated lives. Indeed, so much of the Bible speaks of the evil of dispossession and the importance of accountability. Indeed, this underpins one of the most powerful theological principles of our faith — the practice of reconciliation — one predicated on an acknowledgement of past sins.

Pope Francis recently spoke of the importance of the Sacrament of Reconciliation as the path to true, human healing; as the only way to have “greater spiritual health. To pass from misery to mercy.” Surely this is true of our collective responsibility, as a nation and as a Church.

One of the most powerful images that emerged in response to the Kamloops tragedy is the appearance of hundreds of children’s shoes at makeshift memorials and sacred drum circles, acknowledging the missing children. We need to speak to these bones, to bring their stories back to life, and to show that in our faith, reconciliation isn’t a ceremonial, but a life-changing sacrament. We can’t bring the children back — but their voices should be restored. Nothing less is acceptable.

(Turcotte is president of St. Mary’s University in Calgary.)

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