Church officials seek healing with Native Canadians

In Tuktoyaktuk, on the edge of the Arctic Ocean, a boat stands on the edge of the Catholic mission property with a memorial plaque. The boat is an important artifact of Tuktoyaktuk’s history. For decades, it brought in the supplies and the food that made this fishing and hunting outpost into a village. It was captained by the priest who built the church and spoke in Siglitun about salvation and Jesus.

But that boat also took away their children.

From the 1870s through the 1980s, about 150,000 Native and Inuit kids passed through Church-run residential schools. Along with the Indian Act of 1876, the government of Canada launched a plan to mainstream its aboriginal population by wiping out their language and culture and eventually their attachment to the land. They would do this by means of education.

Native children went off to schools where they were not allowed to speak their own language, where they were separated from their families, where every native practice and tradition was held in contempt.

Making amends

pow wow
Traditional powwow on Manitoulin Island in Ontario. Courtesy of Michael Swan

In 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized on behalf of the Canadian government, which had contracted out the work of running the schools to churches. The majority of the work fell to Catholic religious orders and dioceses. The schools were underfunded and badly run. There were outbreaks of tuberculosis and other health hazards. Corporal punishment morphed into sadistic physical abuse. The schools took on badly trained teachers. There was sexual abuse.

As part of the national apology of 2008, Canada set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Catholic representatives have been at commission hearings throughout. Religious orders and dioceses have opened their archives to the commission and to individuals.

Catholic apologies for the damage done to native culture and to native families began long before the government stepped forward. The Oblates of Mary Immaculate and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops both issued apologies in 1991. In 1995 the bishops also issued a wide ranging assessment of how the Church became entangled in efforts to colonize and marginalize native people titled “Let Justice Flow Like a Mighty River.”