How did we get here? Homily for National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, September 30, 2021, 10 a.m. Mass, Parish Community of St. Kevin
By James T. Mulligan, CSC
A couple of months ago we all cheered and felt wonderful when the Canadian women soccer team won the gold medal at the Olympics. Eleven women on the pitch won it …. but we all won it because we are all Canadians. We were all very, very proud.
Today is the First National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. Today we remember and honour the children who died while attending residential schools and the survivors, families and communities still affected by the legacy of the residential schools system. These residential schools were Canadian as we are all Canadian; these Canadian residential schools were painful and death-dealing to children; these Canadian residential schools were sinful and as Canadians we are all ashamed and we are sorry. As Canadians this is a day for us to recognize the sin of these schools; this is a day for us to learn the truth and to be sorry and to seek pardon and reconciliation.
What were the residential schools?
More than 150,00 First Nations, Metis and Inuit children were forced to attend church-run, government-funded schools between 1870 and 1997. The Canadian government was concerned that these children were not well cared for in their homes. Poor education and health. The government wanted to assimilate the children into white Canadian culture and language and the ways we did things. Children were removed from their families and culture and forced to learn English, embrace Christianity and adopt the customs and ways of the white majority. Many of the children at residential schools were physically, sexually or psychologically abused. The schools became the instrument for cultural genocide part of the effort to eradicate indigenous language and culture. More than 4,000 (likely twice that number) died while attending these schools, most due to malnourishment or disease.
The residential school was EVIL.
How did the Catholic Church become involved in these residential schools?
How could the church participate in such evil? The government asked the churches to administer the schools. Sixty percent of the schools were Catholic. Leadership in the church thought that this would be the way to have these children become Catholic and learn our language and become part of our culture.
Bishop Vital Grandin was the Bishop most responsible for shaping Catholic residential schools. He was in Edmonton / St Albert. He had come from France. He was impressed by the reforms of the French prison system. In 1875 this is what he said about the Indigenous children in the schools: We instill in them a pronounced hatred for native life so that they will be humiliated when reminded of their indigenous origin. When they graduate from our institutions the children have lost everything native except their blood.
The church participated in the residential schools because those who made the decisions were deaf to the gospel. They failed to say no to the racist policy of the government. They proceeded with much arrogance and pride. Many of the religious sisters and priests were good people but they failed to realize that what they were about was evil and sinful. Ignorance was their sin. The residential school is a clear example of the social sin of the church.
Sure we are a church of saints. We are a holy people. But we are also a church of sinners. Personally we sin. But socially we sinned when no one even questioned the existence of these schools and the church’s participation in them. My church did this! Your church did this. This National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is the moment for us to recognize the hurt and the pain our church has inflicted. This is a moment for us to ask for forgiveness. Today is also “orange shirt day”. The orange shirt day honours the residential school survivor Phyllis Webstad who had her orange shirt taken away from her on the first day of school.
THE WORD OF GOD helps us:
From the Old Testament – the book of Wisdom: the sacred writer is speaking to government leaders reminding them that their authority comes from God. And the writer is very direct: You did not rule rightly or keep God’s law or walk according to God’s purpose. Severe judgement falls on those in high places. This is a very strong critique of government leaders and the church leaders who fail to discern God’s purpose.
And from the New Testament – the Book of Revelation: there is a vision of joy and harmony. There is hope and the possibility of living together: Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth / the home of God is among women and men and girls and boys / God will dwell with us and we will be his people / God will wipe away every tear from their eyes / death will be no more.
From the Gospel we must make Jesus’ words into a prayer of healing for the First Nations, the Metis and the Inuit … for all who continue to bear the pain of the residential schools: Come to me all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon me and learn from me for I am gentle and humble of heart and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.
This National Day for Truth and Reconciliation touches all of us. We are Canadians. We are immensely proud and happy for a gold medal won by our women on the soccer pitch. We cheer. We laugh. We are joyful.
And as Canadians on this National Day for Truth and Reconciliation we are subdued. We go deeper into “the truth” of racism of the past and of the present; we learn that “history” is still very much alive – that the horrendous actions of many years ago continue to speak to us in our time; and that remembering the sinful tragedy of residential schools we might work toward healing and justice for our First Nations and Metis and Inuit brothers and sisters. Amen.
(James T. Mulligan is a member of the English Canadian Holy Cross Fathers and Pastor Emeritus of the Parish Community of St. Kevin, Welland. His homily is presented here in its entirety.)