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Motion No. 325 - Call On the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops

Hon. Mary Jane McCallum, pursuant to notice of April 24, 2018, moved:

That the Senate call on the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops to:

(a) invite Pope Francis to Canada to apologize on behalf of the Catholic Church to Indigenous people for the church’s role in the residential school system, as outlined in Call to Action 58 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report;

(b) to respect its moral obligation and the spirit of the 2006 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement and resume the best efforts to raise the full amount of the agreed upon funds; and

(c) to make a consistent and sustained effort to turn over the relevant documents when called upon by survivors of residential schools, their families, and scholars working to understand the full scope of the horrors of the residential school system in the interest of truth and reconciliation.

Honourable senators, I rise today to speak to Motion No. 325, which is the sister motion to the one introduced in the other place on April 18.

This motion calls on the Canadian Conference on Catholic Bishops to assist in facilitating profound steps towards reconciliation, as well as to provide spiritual healing for many Indigenous peoples across Canada.

I stand here today, honourable senators, as a survivor who spent 11 years at Guy Hill Indian Residential School in The Pas, Manitoba.

Guy Hill was a residential school, run by the Roman Catholic Church, wherein the teachings of Christianity and Catholicism were instilled in me from a young age.

However, I entered residential school as a little girl who already had a spiritual connection. This spirituality was the way of life for my family and my people, the Crees and Denes in Brochet.

There was always bannock and tea on the table for visitors. The men took off their hats at the door, which signified respect. After sharing a meal with our guests, there was conversation, storytelling and laughter. The spirit of hospitality, nurturing and sharing brought closeness to family and community. The silence when paddling taught me mindfulness. The slow, methodical search for food demonstrated patience. The spirituality that influenced even the smallest of actions revealed the workings of a higher power.

Daily activities with such close connection to the land were demonstrations of the spirituality within my people. These were happy times where I, a young child, learned about work ethic and the values of sharing, compassion, peace, non-judgment and love. However, my spirituality was forever altered when I entered residential school.

Honourable senators, I would like to share an excerpt from a chapter I have written, entitled “Bless Me Father, For I Have Sinned,” found in the book, First Lady Nation Vol. II: Stories by Aboriginal Women:

The man was strapped to the large wheel that continued to turn endlessly. At the base of the cycle the sharp points of metal, which were anchored to the ground, tore into his stomach. At the peak of the cycle, salt was poured into his wounds. The flames of the fire threw great heat in the labyrinth and roared closely to the wheel. As the wheel reached ground level the pitcher of water was just outside his reach and the heat was unbearable and so his thirst was even more unbearable.

Honourable senators, this image of hell I envisioned won me first prize in religion class at residential school when I was 9. This fear of hell has remained with me throughout my life. I always believed — and still fear — I will end up in hell.

Later on, the chapter continues:

The little girl of four opened the door of the cabin in the trapline and looked up at the full moon that cast a bright light on the snow. The snow on the jack pine tree branches and the snowbanks were pristine and the forest was quiet. She looked up at the moon excitedly and looked to see if she could see the face of her mother on the moon. She wondered if her mom could see what a good little girl she was.

The night I looked up at the beautiful full moon, I knew my mom was somewhere in a place called Heaven and I was full of hope, innocence, love and expectation. That was my identity as I entered residential school.

Honourable senators, I was not defective. As a Cree child, before residential school, the higher spiritual being was called Kici Manitou, which means Great God, and Kici Manitou lived in kicikisikok, which means heaven. Kici Manitou created Aski, or earth, and all that lives on this earth.

All creation was living and interconnected. Humans were dependent on the earth to sustain life. Indigenous peoples led a nomadic lifestyle, which promoted sustainability and only taking enough to live well.

Before I entered residential school I was safe, I was loved and I was fulfilled in the spirituality that surrounded my very existence. There was no violence in my home but rather an emphasis on acquiring a strong work ethic, honing my critical thinking skills, the passing of traditional life skills, ingenuity, creativity, curiosity, freedom, spirituality and, above all, laughter and a genuine love of life.

This all changed drastically when I began my time at residential school.

Honourable senators, I was five years old when my mother passed on in December 1957. I was on the plane to residential school three weeks later. I had left my little community in the woods by plane and although my sister had been beside me the whole way, it was of little comfort as everything I saw was overwhelmingly strange and frightening. I remember crying the whole way because I wanted to go back home to my dad and family.

I would like to share another excerpt from my aforementioned chapter, “Bless Me Father, For I Have Sinned,” which highlights a reality which many students quickly understood. It’s going to be difficult:

When nighttime came, she could no longer hold back her tears. She cried, from her heart and soul, because she was so lonesome, displaced and heartbroken. She cried for many nights over the winter and her brother was brought from the next building to stay beside her and comfort her.

Over the next two years, she watched and copied what the other little girls did as she was still learning to speak and understand English. She went to the classrooms, carrying her doll, and learned to be quiet. She watched as the women in the long black dresses strapped students but couldn’t understand what the students had done wrong. She understood pretty quickly that all the students were bad. It seemed to her that she was here to learn how bad she was.

Honourable senators, within the healing work I have done personally, I have had to dig deep and see what was creating and continuing the disharmony and dysfunction in my life. I strived to understand the root cause. With the years of shame-based upbringing that reshaped my identity in residential school, I had learned not to love myself.

In December 2013, as part of my own personal healing journey, I travelled with my youngest daughter to visit with a number of retired nuns at Mother House in Sherbrooke, Quebec. I had gone to speak to them about residential schools and to thank them for their years of service. During our visit, I expressed my amazement that an institution run by the Roman Catholic Church did not practise the tenet that teaches us: “God has gifted people with amazing talents.” Rather than asserting how bad we were, the representatives from the church should have said, “How can we develop those skills and celebrate the spirit within you?”

Colleagues, the last two centuries have been brutal for First Nations with regard to their treatment at the hands of the federal government and the churches. The churches administered the rules, policies and procedures of these government-funded institutions known as residential schools. In my case, it was Catholic priests and nuns who ran the Guy Hill Residential School. The young students were affected by structural, political and spiritual violence created by the residential school system all in the name of God. Many of these young and innocent children have grown into adults who still retain the deep and persisting soul wounds they received through the trauma they suffered at these institutions.

As stated in the book Trauma Healing by Carolyn Yoder, trauma affects our very physiology, including our ability to do integrated whole-brain thinking. Removing children from their homes and keeping them imprisoned in isolated, foreign territory and removing their language and culture was a form of terrorism. The compounding of these traumatic events magnifies the presence of structural violence and injustice.

Honourable senators, with regard to the motion before us, the question many ask is: Why do former students need this apology? In response, I would like to quote from a lauded book entitled Indian Horse written by acclaimed Ojibway author the late, great Richard Wagamese. He writes:

We lived under constant threat. If it wasn’t the direct physical threat of beatings . . . it was the dire threat of purgatory, hell and the everlasting agony their religion promised for the unclean, the heathen, the unsaved. Those of us who remembered the stories told around our people’s fires trembled in fear at the images of hell, damnation, fire and brimstone. . . .

When your innocence is stripped from you, when your people are denigrated, when the family you came from is denounced and your tribal ways and rituals are pronounced backward, primitive, savage, you come to see yourself as less than human. That is hell on earth, that sense of unworthiness. That’s what they inflicted on us.

So why is this apology important? The journey to healing the profound wounds inflicted on our souls and spirits at these schools is long and complex. Many victims need vindication. All people have a basic need to achieve closure, to experience the righting of wrongs.

Part of this closure and journey towards healing and reconciliation includes a moral balancing. We want to know that we — former students — are not to blame but that the responsibility for what happened to us lies elsewhere. This includes removing the shame and humiliation that accompanies victimization and, ideally, replacing it with a sense of honour and respect. At times this can be simply achieved, at least in part, by apologies and restitution. Despite the fact that the actual losses are impossible to compensate, there exists a need for some symbolic statement or reparation as indicated by author Carolyn Yoder on page 26 of her book Trauma Healing.

Colleagues, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada indicates that there were 139 recognized residential schools across Canada. Of these, 64 were administered by the Roman Catholic Church. It is integral to reconciliation that reparations be made, a notion which is recognized by the Catholic Church itself through their involvement in the 2006 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. It is with this agreement in mind and the intent behind it that I lend my voice to the call for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops to assist Canadians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, in taking an important step towards achieving actual reconciliation.

There is no clearer or more comprehensive path to achieving fulsome reconciliation than the 94 calls to action as set out by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, whose extensive trailblazing efforts have made the path to reconciliation tangible. This is a concept I have strived toward for many decades as part of my own healing journey. While at times I have regressed into thinking that there is no hope and no path forward, I would like to quote the words of our colleague, Senator Murray Sinclair, whose wisdom uplifts my soul and replenishes my hope. In testimony he gave before the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples on February 14, 2001, he said, in part:

. . . you don’t have to believe that reconciliation will happen; you have to believe that reconciliation must happen. That’s what will get you through this. You have to believe that you have to do something about this. If you believe that it’s going to happen and then you don’t see it happen, you’ll give up on that belief very easily. But you have to believe that it must happen and you have to believe that you have to do what you can to make it happen.

It is with these words, colleagues, that I stand before you today and urge you to join me in doing what we can as Canadian parliamentarians to make reconciliation happen. There are deep, profound and historical wounds that require attention. Let us be attentive. Let us use our voices to support this important step in the healing journey for many Indigenous peoples, and let us use our voices as a catalyst for the move towards reconciliation.

Thank you.

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