The National Day for Truth and Reconciliation is a recent – but very powerful – addition to the Canadian calendar.
The day was introduced on September 30, 2021, as a way to remember the children who were sent to residential schools and never came home, as well as the survivors of those schools, their families, and communities. They were all isolated from their families and struggled with loneliness – pining for family and community connections.
Between 1867 and 1996, the Canadian government ran 140 residential schools, often working in tandem with religious communities, including various Catholic orders. As the Truth and Reconciliation Commission so thoroughly documented, often the children attending these boarding schools were forcibly taken from their families, and their own Indigenous culture was stripped away, with Indigenous languages lost. No matter how well-intentioned the creation of the schools may have been, many of these schools often inflicted harm that resulted in a life of trauma. Many children attending schools across the country were subjected to physical, sexual, spiritual, and emotional abuse.
Worst of all, of course, was the fact that many children died while attending residential boarding schools, far from their homes, and families were not informed of these deaths, with no marked graves to allow family any sense of connection or a place to grieve, creating an ongoing sense of loss.
As Catholics, we play a role in this sorrowful legacy and have a great deal to learn about what happened, how we can properly express contrition, and how we can help. We have inherited a very painful part of Canadian history. There are still many survivors in Canada today, scarred by their experiences in these schools. Many children and grandchildren live with intergenerational trauma, recognizing the suffering of their ancestors, whether it is the lingering sadness over a lost childhood or even the challenge of being a parent when there were no parental models growing up, or of having trouble showing affection when none was shown to them as children.
Pope Francis’s visit to Canada in July, 2022 was an important step in beginning to heal the suffering caused by residential schools. His request for forgiveness from Canada’s First Nations, Inuit, and Metis people answered #58 on the TRC’s list of 94 Calls to Action.
The papal visit served as a key moment in the church’s relationship with the Indigenous people of Canada. But what can we do as individuals? The first step is to learn about what happened, because it is impossible to engage in the process of reconciliation without knowing what the problems have been. A good place to start is the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation’s website: https://nctr.ca/records/reports/. Another excellent resource is Listening to Indigenous Voices, which explores Indigenous worldviews, examines the history of colonization, and concludes with sessions on righting relationships, decolonization, and indigenization.
Voice your support for the ongoing cooperation of our church in providing documents and records to help the process of finding answers. Watch documentaries and attend lectures. Pray for the missing children and their families, for survivors and for finding ways to help the healing.
And today, put on your orange shirt – or wearing anything orange you might have– because orange is a visual reminder that every child matters. It’s a small gesture but it represents extending a hand to begin the process of understanding, which is key to reconciliation.
When you are out and about today, whenever you see an orange shirt, think of the lost children and the suffering of so many because of those losses. And make that mindfulness a daily thing, so that we think of reconciliation not only on special days of the year but on a regular basis. It is a first step in healing the past. No amount of work will resolve the loss. However, efforts towards reconciliation make us hopeful for a future where communities can find peace with one another and learn together.
Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’