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A teepee stands in the graveyard in the Cowessess First Nation near Grayson, Sask., where 751 unmarked graves were found. CNS photo/Shannon VanRaes, Reuters

Sr. Helena Burns: The sorrow of residential schools

  • July 14, 2021

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The sorrow of residential schools

Sr. Helena Burns, FSP

Although I don’t feel qualified to speak to the ongoing revelations of life and death at Canada’s residential schools, I would still like to weigh in, and to express my sorrow.

One of my Millennial Sisters gets millions of hits on her TikTok (she mostly does “nuns having fun” videos), and lately the pre-teens who comment on her account are accusing her of being part of a horrific organization that kills Indigenous peoples. This sister asked my opinion as to what she might reply. I am of the mind to always say “we,” and take responsibility for the historic and present day doings of any group I’m a part of — even though I firmly disagree with any erroneous and sinful mentalities, and I like to believe that I would have acted differently in the past.

Several of my nuns in the United States are part Native American. One sister I presently live with is half Native American, from the Penobscot tribe (Maine, Atlantic provinces and Quebec), and her mother is one of the most ardent Catholics you will ever meet. But this does not remove the fact of the many atrocities and persecutions of the past that are still keenly felt today. This sister went to Rome for St. Kateri’s canonization and told me this event continues to be “an immense source of joy for my people who have carried so much pain with them.”

There are bright spots regarding Indigenous peoples and their Catholic faith. Pilgrimages in Lac Ste. Anne, Alta.; Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, Que. (St. Anne is a big deal because the grandmother is a big deal in matriarchal family dynamics!); pilgrimages to the burial place of the incorrupt Servant of God, Rose Prince of the Carrier Nation, B.C.

In our travels, my sisters and I have met several bishops who are working mightily and sincerely for reconciliation with chiefs across Canada. Some of these bishops have become proficient in native languages.

Although the mainstream media is not reporting the nuances of the history of the graves found at residential schools (e.g., the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report by Dr. Scott Hamilton) — the facts being reported are horrible enough. Remember, it was only in the late 20th century that the last residential school was closed. Some of the students/survivors are not that old! I think it’s of the utmost importance to listen right now. Listen to the Indigenous voices and experiences themselves — silenced for so long. Some of these are horror stories and we must not look away.

We non-Indigenous today can risk the same old rushing-in, do-gooding, problem-solving — simplistically thinking we comprehend situations, and speaking “for.” Outgoing AFN national chief Perry Bellegarde tells his fellow Canadians in a July 4 Toronto Star article: “Learn about First Nations’ culture, language and dance … foods. You know, integration can work both ways.” Native elders have also been cautioning against the current burning of (often native) churches: “It will release a bad spirit on our land.” They also want to preserve certain sites as possible evidence.

In my opinion, the ideas, the worldview, the anthropology that occasioned the “Sixties Scoop,” in some ways was much worse than the residential schools. At very least and as ill-conceived as it was, the plan of the residential schools was to return children to their villages, to their families. The Scoop deemed native parents unfit to raise their own children by placing them (forced removal/adoption) in non-Indigenous homes. 

I am presently reading a book on the life of St. Madeleine Sophie Barat who was a missionary in the U.S. in the early 19th century. It, too, talks about “savages” and “capturing” the children. God help us. How about the savagery of stealing, lying, breaking treaties, not to mention the so-called civilized world’s practices of clandestine torture, abortion, euthanasia and fetal experimentation?

In a tweet of June 16, Bishop Scott McCaig, CC, Ordinary of the Canadian Armed Forces, succinctly summed up exactly where the Church went wrong, very wrong: “The Church should not have participated in government policy of residential schools. It contradicted our teaching on inculturation and supporting what is good, true and beautiful in a culture. It opposed subsidiarity and centrality of family. May we never sacrifice Gospel principles again.”

(Sr. Helena, fsp, is a Daughter of St. Paul. She holds a Masters in Media Literacy Education and studied screenwriting at UCLA. www.HellBurns.com  Twitter: @srhelenaburns)

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