A protester takes part in a march from the Ontario provincial legislature in Toronto, Ontario. CNS photo/Chris Helgren, Reuters

Cathy Majtenyi: Time is ripe for reconciliation

  • July 17, 2021

Following more than a month of gut-wrenching developments, the winds of change are starting to blow across Canada, bringing with them fresh energy and commitment to reconciliation.

The appointment of Inuk leader Mary Simon as Governor General weaves reconciliation firmly into the fabric of Canadian politics and society. Hopes are high that Simon, who has a highly distinguished career as an Inuit leader, negotiator, diplomat and journalist, will inspire Canadians to address the historical injustices suffered by Indigenous peoples.

In her July 6 inaugural speech, Simon vowed to “work every day towards promoting healing and wellness across Canadian society.” She spoke of coming to terms with the “atrocities of our collective past” in the work of building a better tomorrow.

“I believe we can build the hopeful future in a way that is respectful of what has happened in the past,” she said. “It means supporting the wellbeing of people by focusing on our youth, and in improved educational outcomes for all of our children.”

Indigenous children received a major boost that same day. In an historical first, the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan signed an agreement with the federal government that returned child welfare responsibilities to the community. The agreement springs from 2019 legislation designed to reduce the number of Indigenous children in state care. The 2016 census reveals that Indigenous children represent 52.2 per cent of children in foster care, despite accounting for only 7.7 per cent of the overall population of children under 15.

This is a hugely important development. Many argue the child welfare system is a continuation of residential schools in the sense that children are removed from their families and communities to be raised elsewhere. 

Although Indigenous societies vary in their approaches to child rearing, discipline and education, a common characteristic is the web of relationships through which elders give guidance — through storytelling, role modelling and experiential learning — to younger generations.

Being embedded in family and community enables children to learn, grow and become secure in their identity. But children in residential schools were taken away from their families and raised by strangers, frequently in harsh, abusive environments with very different beliefs, cultures and practices. By the time they returned at the age of 17, they were strangers to their communities.

The assimilation policies ensured that the children would view their language, culture and society as inferior. Caught between two worlds, the young fell victim to low self-esteem, high rates of depression and anxiety. They received little or no grounding to teach them to live authentically by the values of their culture.

Plagued by pain, confusion and loneliness, many youth turned to alcohol, drugs, violence and other destructive behaviours. When they had children of their own, they lacked the experience of a loving family and community to guide them in their parenting, hence the cycle of intergenerational trauma.

A new Governor General with a profound understanding of, and commitment to, the welfare of children, and the Cowessess First Nation taking full charge of child welfare responsibilities, will greatly boost efforts to empower Indigenous communities.

This represents a wonderful opportunity for the Catholic Church to refresh its commitment to reconciliation. We can re-commit to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement and make good on the $21-million shortfall in the $25-million “best efforts” fundraising campaign mandated by the courts. 

We can request that part of this funding be used to support Indigenous-led programs that not only counsel survivors but, using Indigenous methods, also work with today’s youth to instill a sense of identity, hope and value to break the intergenerational trauma.

The Church is a place of healing and strength for many Indigenous peoples; let us build on that.

(Majtenyi is a public relations officer who specializes in research at an Ontario university.)

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