Children of an Indian Residential School in Canada Children of an Indian Residential School in Canada  

Church in Canada prays for healing and reconciliation with First Nations

The Canadian Bishops’ Catholic Indigenous Council (CCIC) focuses its annual message for the National Day of Prayer in Solidarity with Indigenous Peoples on healing, forgiveness and reconciliation. The Day is traditionally celebrated on 12 December, Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

By Lisa Zengarini

Following their formal apology two months ago for the Catholic Church’s role in the Indian Residential School system, Canadian Bishops are renewing their call for healing, forgiveness and reconciliation.

The call was made in the annual Pastoral Message by the Canadian Bishops’ Catholic Indigenous Council (CCIC) for the National Day of Prayer in Solidarity with Indigenous Peoples. The Day is celebrated on the occasion of the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, on 12 December.

This year’s celebration takes place only a few days ahead of the meeting of several Indigenous delegates with Pope Francis in the Vatican, from 17-20 December.

Diversity versus division

The message begins by reminding that as “the Body of Christ”, we “are called to live in friendship and harmony with all peoples” and that “God creates and sustains the wonderful diversity of peoples, cultures, races and creeds.” This is why, it says, it is “a source of great sadness” when this “blessed diversity becomes a source of division, threat, and intolerance.”

No justice without forgiveness

The Bishops’ Commission remarks that division can also be fueled by yielding to the temptation of revenge for past hurts that destroys “opportunities for forgiveness and healing”. 

“Unless we take responsibility for our healing, it is difficult to move forward,” the message points out, recalling, with St John Paul II’s words, that there is “no peace without justice, no justice without forgiveness.”

The tragedy of Indian residential schools

Referring specifically to the pain and sorrow caused by the tragic finding of the 215 unmarked graves at Kamloops Indian Residential School and the subsequent discoveries at other former Catholic residential schools last Summer, the message further emphasizes that, as pointed out by Pope Francis, forgiveness cannot be “temporary or shallow”.

God's forgiveness and our forgiveness

“Free and heartfelt forgiveness is a reflection of God’s own infinite ability to forgive. Those who truly forgive do not forget. Instead, they choose not to yield to the same destructive force that caused them so much suffering,” the message says, citing the Encyclical Letter Fratelli tutti

Caring for our brothers

The CCIC goes on to remind that the privilege of God’s infinite forgiveness for our human mistakes “carries with it the great responsibility of the respect and care of our brothers and sisters – especially those who deal with obstacles, injustices, or other barriers to their human freedom and blessedness.”

One of these barriers, it says, is “discrimination and prejudice because of the differences among peoples”, which the COVID-19 pandemic has made worse.

Hence the call to take “seriously the problem of intolerance and prejudice” and to work “for a culture of caring and respect” so that younger generations in Canada can move toward a more “hopeful future”.

Bishops' formal apology in September

On 24 September this year, Canadian Bishops issued an official apology statement acknowledging that “grave abuses” were committed in some Indian Residential Schools managed by the Catholic Church, expressing their “profound remorse”.

In the following days they subsequently announced a $30 million national financial pledge to support healing and reconciliation initiatives. Funds will be allocated over a period of up to five years and parishes across Canada have been encouraged to participate and amplify the effort.

The Canadian Government assimilation programme

The discovery of the remains of 215 children buried in the ground of former Kamloops Indian Residential School, in British Columbia, in May this year, and the following grave discoveries in other former residential schools, have drawn public opinion’s attention worldwide on the suffering endured by tens of  thousands of indigenous children in these schools.

The boarding schools were operated by Churches between the 19th and 20th centuries as part of the Canadian Government’s “assimilation programme”. 

Cultural genocide

Children belonging to First Nations (as indigenous peoples are called in Canada) were forcefully separated from their families and stripped of their right to speak traditional languages and practice their culture. Many children suffered neglect and abuse causing long-term problems among Indigenous peoples and at least 6,000 died.

Since the last residental school closed in 1996, former students have demanded recognition and compensation, resulting in the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement in 2007 and a formal public apology by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2008.

A report published in 2015 the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC), after a seven year enquiry, described the system as "cultural genocide".

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29 November 2021, 15:12