One month ahead of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s arrival in Edmonton, another undertaking to help heal victims of Indian Residential School abuse has been launched. The Roman Catholic bishops from Alberta and the Northwest Territories, have now made a formal apology to Aboriginal people who were abused as children in Canadian residential schools.
In a letter to the region’s Catholic population, the Catholic Church discussed the importance of the March 27-30 Truth and Reconciliation’s Final National Event in Edmonton, and urged church followers to “become directly involved through attendance, volunteering and praying for its success.”
Local Archbishop Richard Smith called the seventh and final event “an important historical moment for us; like any other national event, this wrap-up event is going to have a particularly strong significance. There’s a hope that this process will first of all bring about individual healing, and also ease the transformation in society.”
He said that he would like to see the event become a catalyst that will encourage even more conversation though out Canadian society.
In its written apology the Roman Catholic Bishops expressed their “regret for Catholic participation in government policies that resulted in children being separated from their families, and often suppressed Aboriginal culture and language at the residential schools.” The Bishops apologized “to those who experienced sexual and physical abuse in residential schools under Catholic administration.”
The apology, issued at a press conference by Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith on February 24, was reiterated when the bishops visited Ben Calf Robe Elementary School later that day.
“It is critically important for us that we do this (offer an apology) because there’s no substitute for that word ‘sorry’ when it comes to bringing healing,” Smith explained. “We’ve come here, in the presence of these children, so that they see that we take these words seriously. And we do want to reach out to them, and to those who’ve gone before them, and to work with them in the future to continue the process of healing and reconciliation that has in fact, been going on for some time.”
The Bishops of Alberta and the NWT are among the last of the various faith groups to apologize for the atrocities that they and others committed in the hundreds of federally created/funded Indian Residential Schools that opened in 1870s with most finally closed by the mid-1980s. The last school to shut down was located in Saskatchewan; it closed in 1996. The Anglican, Presbyterian and United Churches and the Missionary Oblates have each apologized over the last few years for the schools they operated.
“We are adding our voice to those of the Catholic bishops and leaders of religious communities across Canada,” Smith said in comments he made to junior high school students at Edmonton’s Ben Calf Robe School. “When people are hurt, you know it’s important to say you’re sorry.”
Smith, who presides over the Roman Catholic Bishops in Alberta and the NWT, apologized for the years of sexual and physical abuse that was all too prevalent at the schools and expressed both sorrow and regret for separating children from their families and siblings and suppressing their culture and languages.
More than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children from across the country were taken from their families and forced into the schools by a government bent on assimilation at any and all costs. Thousands of children died at these infamous institutions where tots as young as four years of age were forbidden to speak their own languages, offer any opinions or in fact speak at all unless they were spoken to.
Well known and respected Edmonton Elder Jerry Wood offered the opening prayer as the Bishops met to offer an apology at Ben Calf Robe School. Wood was taken from his home and forced into residential school when he was just six years old. He suffered 11 years of abuse, noting in an earlier (2011) conversation that “we could not speak unless we were spoken to, we could not smile or be happy or express an opinion. The residential schools created much unhappiness and despair; they destroyed our families, they separated us from our brothers and sisters, they eliminated our opportunity to grow and succeed. It destroyed me and it affects me, just as it does to most Aboriginal peoples and families in Canada. We all suffer as a result of residential schools. It was the worst of times; no human being should ever have to suffer the way we were made to suffer.”
Regular beatings, knuckle rapping, head slapping, intimidation, sexual abuse and isolation from family and friends were all too commonplace.
“They tried to remove us from our past, they tried to tell us we were evil, they tried to destroy our way of life but in the end it was proven to be the church and the government that was evil, not us.”
Following the apology by the Alberta and NWT Territories Roman Catholic Bishops, Mr. Wood didn’t hide his surprise.
“I never thought I would ever hear that apology,” he told media, “because the Catholic Church has been dragging its feet about making their apology. This is what I wanted to hear; I wanted to hear them say that they are sorry.”
When the TRC’s Final National Event gets underway in Edmonton on March 27, it will conclude a process that began in 2010. Previous events were held in Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Vancouver, Montreal, Halifax and Inuvik and the closing ceremonies will be held in Ottawa toward the end of this year. A national archives will be established in the months following the closing event that will allow every Canadian an opportunity to learn more about the Indian Residential School era and the affects it has had on an entire population.
The four year long, $60 million Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings are part of a landmark compensation deal between the federal government, the Crown and residential school survivors. The Commission has visited hundreds of communities across the country as it listened to and recorded thousands of conversations with victims of the schools.
The Roman Catholic Bishops’ apology, the last of its kind from the various religious groups who operated the now-defunct school system, came just weeks before the last of seven National Events. Ironically, the apology also came just weeks after it was announced that the federal government has initiated legal measures to get the Catholic Church to pay the rest of its share of the class-action settlement that was agreed upon several years ago. The Roman Catholic Church has apparently paid only a small fraction of the $25 million agreed to in the settlement and still owes more than $1.5 million to the Aboriginal Healing Foundation. The Anglican, United and Presbyterian Churches have each paid their $25 million share of the two billion dollar settlement.
The Roman Catholic Church must be commended for taking responsibility for its actions via a written apology, however it is now time for the church group to back up its apology by paying in full the money it owes the thousands of victims it created through the use of excessive force, confinement and ongoing abuse.
By John Copley