IN THE HOUSE – ‘Residential school was clearly the source of so much pain’

St. Anne’s residential school in Fort Albany, Ont. in the 1040s. (Image: Algoma University/ Edmund Metatabwin Collection)

Comments by Kamloops-Thompson-Cariboo MP Cathy McLeod during a debate in Parliament on Thursday, April 26, 2018 on whether to ask Pope Francis to apologize for the role of the Catholic Church in the residential school system. The motion was proposed by the NDP based on a recommendation by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

SOME PEOPLE SAY that Parliament is asking for an apology and that apologies should come from the heart. Absolutely, apologies should come from the heart, and they can come often. I am hoping that the debate in the House today will be part of what is heard in terms of the decision the Pope will ultimately make.

I also know that we need to respect the independence of religious organizations and their activities; however, I want to note that this is an invitation and an expression of how Parliament feels. An invitation is very different from a direction.

I know we have many survivors from St. Anne’s and I want to acknowledge what they have gone through and how connected and troublesome their pasts and histories have been. I think it is important that my comments are going out to the people who perhaps do not understand very intimately what has happened to the survivors and who perhaps have a more limited understanding of the issue.

Like many of us in Canada, I grew up in a suburban middle-class community. As with many new Canadians, our understanding of indigenous culture and the history of the residential schools was extraordinarily limited. To be frank, back in those days, a university education did little to enhance awareness.

This all changed for me when, as a young nurse of 26 or 27 years old, I was hired in a large first nations community in British Columbia. I look back at that time now as a very unique and intimate privilege that I had when I spent three years as part of that community.

Over those three years, there were many conversations. I want to do a big shout-out to the community health representatives, the NNADAP workers, the court workers, and all those who took me under their wing and wanted to ensure that I understood first-hand not only how the residential school impacted their lives but also how ongoing government policy was so destructive for their people and their community. They knew that for me to do my job effectively, I had to understand their history.

This was 35 years ago, and this conversation was certainly not happening in the broader Canadian public. It is very sad that it has taken so long for us to have these conversations that have been had in the last number of years.

The reason I say it was a unique time is that in the 1980s, the elders of that community had not attended residential schools. As a nurse I was part of the community, and there were four generations. One of the jobs was to visit the elders at their homes to check on their medications. Typically they were working in their large gardens, were off at fish camps, berry-picking, or creating beautiful baskets with the cedar roots that they had dug for, but underlying that there was a deep sadness and a concern.

The concern was for their children who had not come home and for what they saw in their children who had come home and who seemed to be caught in a bit of a vicious and destructive cycle. This was the first generation of children who had been sent away to school.

I always remember the drug and alcohol worker, the NNADAP worker, who talked about his experiences. He talked about how he came home and got lost in alcohol abuse for many years. He talked about how it impacted his children. He talked about how he got sober and then committed his life to helping people deal with their addictions and their pain.

He also had to live with not having provided parenting for his own children, and the loss of some of his children in his life. Then, of course, we had the children’s children.

With that experience, I got to witness the magic of the dancing to drums, listening to the stories in the moonlight by the fire, the whole community gathering to support the families after the death of a loved one, many feasts, and also being mercilessly teased for my ineptness with the dabber and bingo sheets. However, this was also a community in pain. On the darker side, in the first week I was there, there were three suicides. I remember clearly the day when three gentlemen went out in a boat; they tipped, and their lives were lost. There was hopelessness, poverty, unemployment, addiction, and overcrowding, and the residential school was very clearly the source of so much pain for that generation and for the generation before them and the generations that came afterward.

What we have today is a motion that contains three parts. One is to invite an apology. It has been said already today that sometimes an apology has to come in many forms. One of my colleagues said to me that if he did something terribly wrong and said “sorry” to my wife, and she said a week later, “This is still bothering me. We need to talk about how we can make this better”, that relationship is important to him and he would make sure he continued to work toward that relationship and that apology. I see this as being very similar. We need to recognize that it is important.

There are the other two components of the motion, which have been talked about.

Again, what I am saying is focused for the people who might be listening today who do not understand the issue as well as the survivors do. Not everyone can take three years, but I challenge anyone who might be listening and who does not understand the situation to read one of the many books, such as The Education of Augie Merasty or They Called Me Number One. They should go to see the movie Indian Horse, which was recently released. The author, Richard Wagamese, is from my riding. They should attend a powwow or national aboriginal day.

Let us all commit to a better understanding and the continued hard work of reconciliation.


About Mel Rothenburger (6874 Articles) is a forum about Kamloops and the world. It has more than one million views. Mel Rothenburger is the former Editor of The Daily News in Kamloops, B.C. (retiring in 2012), and past mayor of Kamloops (1999-2005). At he is the publisher, editor, news editor, city editor, reporter, webmaster, and just about anything else you can think of. He is grateful for the contributions of several local columnists. This blog doesn't require a subscription but gratefully accepts donations to help defray costs.

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