Peter Novecosky, OSB
Looking to a new future
The bishops of Saskatchewan have issued a call to the Catholic faithful of the province to look to a new future in their relationship with Aboriginal communities.
The occasion for issuing this invitation is the June 21-24 gathering of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) being held in Saskatoon. It is one of the last of seven such national gatherings across Canada.
The TRC meetings were initiated by the Canadian government as an effort to put on record what happened at Indian residential schools. These schools were part of the federal government’s policy of cultural assimilation of Aboriginal people, beginning in the 1840s. They were founded to kill the Indian in the child. The churches managed many of these schools. The last residential school closed in 1996.
The schools were part of a larger government policy that included many unfulfilled treaties, millions of acres of crown land, 640 reserves across Canada and the Indian Act.
“As the Catholic Church in Saskatchewan, we were involved in the residential schools and we recognize a moral responsibility and obligation to be involved in healing and reconciliation efforts,” say the five bishops who signed the letter. The bishops, while acknowledging that many people worked at the residential schools “with goodwill and generosity,” apologize for the abuses that took place at the schools. They also apologize for the part the church played in helping to suppress the culture and language of the First Nations and Métis peoples.
Gerry Kelly, who is co-ordinating the Catholic response to the TRC for 54 separate Catholic entities from his office in Ottawa, points out that getting Canadians to own up to a terrible history isn’t just a political problem. It’s a problem in the church, and the awareness of the problem “is very thin within the Catholic community.”
He noted that when a religious order or a bishop issues an apology, it seems rather remote from parish life. It’s something that happens at the clerical level, he said. “Because of the clericalism, Catholics have a hard time owning this,” he told a Meeting Place workshop on How Can Churches Talk on Reconciliation.
Besides what happens at the official and clerical levels, what is also important is what happens on coffee row and gossiping across the back fence among neighbours. It is here that prejudices are nurtured and passed on and where the gulf between cultures can be kept alive. Unfavourable incidents can be taken out of context and amplified.
“The Gospel we proclaim calls us to actively address the legacy of the assimilation policies and the larger cluster of issues relating to colonialism, racism and prejudice, and the rupture with traditional Aboriginal ways of life,” the Saskatchewan bishops write. “These are not ‘Aboriginal issues’ but issues for all of us. This is about our communities, our province, our church.”
The bishops hope that the TRC can become a turning point after which Catholics can “walk closely with our Catholic Aboriginal brothers and sisters” and that it will “open doors” for them to walk together with Aboriginal communities as a whole and to advocate for justice and healing in our society.
One of the most successful programs of healing is Returning to Spirit. Developed by Marc Pizandawatc, an Algonquin man, and Sister Anne Thomson, SSA, Returning to Spirit involves a process of self-discovery, recognizing false patterns and beliefs and then consciously and concretely shifting thinking and behaviours. Participants are empowered to move beyond these patterns to create a future based on choice rather than reaction. Participants say the program helps them develop a deeper sense of who they are and what they are capable of doing. It brings a sense of hope in the newfound ability to move forward.
The bishops of Saskatchewan encourage Catholics to attend the TRC event in Saskatoon, to learn about our past, and to equip us to be “artisans of healing and reconciliation.”