By Slav Kornik
EDMONTON – The Catholic Bishops of Alberta and the Northwest Territories have released a letter which includes an apology to First Nations people who attended residential schools.
The letter reads in part: “We, the Catholic Bishops of Alberta and Northwest Territories, apologize to those who experienced sexual and physical abuse in Residential Schools under Catholic administration.”
“We also express our apology and regret for Catholic participation in government policies that resulted in children being separated from their families, and often suppressed Aboriginal culture and language at the residential schools.”
The letter was read at Ben Calf Robe School in Edmonton on Monday.
“We’ve come here, in the presence of these children, so that they see that we take these words seriously,” explained Archbishop Richard Smith. “And we do want to reach out to them, and to those who’ve gone before them, and to work with them in the future to continue the process of healing and reconciliation that has in fact, been going on for some time.”
“It’s critically important for us that we do this because there’s no substitute for that word ‘sorry’ when it comes to bringing healing,” Edmonton’s Archbishop said.
Federal funded Residential Schools were opened around the 1870s, which resulted in more than 150,000 First Nations, Metis and Inuit children from across Canada being taken from their families.
Jerry Wood spent 11 years in a residential school. He was in attendance for the reading of the apology on Monday.
“That’s what I wanted to hear… ‘I’m sorry.’ I thought I’d never hear that word coming from them.”
Wood said the fact that the letter was read in front of young people was incredibly important.
“They’ll have a better understanding of their parents, and all the ones who have gone to a residential school, and inter-generational affects of residential schools.”
Wood said he struggled with the impact of his years in residential schools for much of his life, and struggled with alcoholism, before eventually getting counselling and taking part in talking circles in his community.
“I realized that I was trying to drown my experiences in residential school – from the sexual abuse, and the physical abuse, mental abuse, spiritual abuse – that I went through,” he shared.
“Cree is my first language and I didn’t speak any English when I went there, and we weren’t allowed to talk in our own language.”
“I think anyone – and the bishops included – want to do whatever we can to reach out and foster that healing, foster that reconciliation, and to learn from what has happened in the past,” said Archbishop Smith.
The Truth Reconciliation Commission (TRC) will be holding the last of its seven national events in Edmonton March 27-30. The event is said to be an opportunity for former students of the residential schools to voice their experiences, and a chance for others to learn about their history and impact.
“This is an important and necessary first step on a long-term journey of moving towards healing and authentic reconciliation,” read the letter.
The Catholic Bishops of Alberta and the NWT say they will work with the Catholic community to challenge attitudes of racism and prejudice that continue to exist in Alberta and Canada.
“We will continue to find ways for Catholics together with other concerned Canadians to support more effectively Aboriginal peoples in their ongoing struggles to achieve justice and equity in Canadian society,” read the letter.
The letter was signed by seven members of the Catholic Bishops of Alberta and the Northwest Territories.
Lynn Anderson teaches Cree at Ben Calf Robe School. She says the apology letter is a big first step, but that more must be done.
“It’s nice to hear the apology, but there’s so much more beyond just getting an apology,” she said. “So much work to do.”
For Wood, it’s a matter of learning from the past, while still looking to the future.
“It took me a long time to get over it. To forget, but not to forget.”