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(Re)conciliation: The Trauma Tour | Monica Bassilli

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The following article contains information on the Indian Residential School System and its impacts on Indigenous children. Also, see the National Indian Residential School Crisis Line, which provides 24-hour crisis support to former Indian Residential School students and their families at 1-866-925-4419.

On Treaty 6 territory in Edmonton, Alberta, Pope Francis, the head of the Catholic Church, apologized for the church’s role in the Indian Residential School System. The large-scale enforcement of mandatory Residential Schooling for Indigenous children led to a minimum of four-thousand missing and murdered children. However, this number is not concrete as the facilitators and educators implicated in the Residential School System failed to maintain any continuity of care for Indigenous children. 

Residential Schools operated from the 1880s to 1996, meaning the last Residential School closed twenty-six years ago. The forced education system required Canadian officials, at the time the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, to remove Indigenous children from their homes and take them to Indian Residential Schools for the entirety of the year. As a result, indigenous children lost access to their family, community members, and necessary knowledge to learn and grow from Indigenous ways of being and knowing. 


The Legacy of Residential Schools


The ties between Indigenous and settler knowledge were profound – among countless experiences, church representatives punished Indigenous children for speaking their Indigenous languages and were required to speak English. Further, domestic activities were divided through colonial gender roles, meaning only girls learnt domestic labour while men learned manual labour. Physical, sexual, emotional, and psychological trauma was commonplace, including the reality that approximately forty-two percent of Indigenous children died in Residential Schools. Parents were in isolated communities, unable to reach their children, often completely unaware of their wellbeing or if they would be coming home. 


With this in mind, understanding the legacy of Indian Residential Schools cannot be framed as a part of history to “forgive and forget.” This understanding fails to recognize the lasting impacts on Indigenous peoples today and suggests that moving forward means forgetting the past. In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) published a report on the impacts of Residential Schools and the Calls to Action required by all levels of government and their subsequent institutions. Although this report was published seven years ago, little progress is felt in Indigenous nations across so-called Canada.


As per the TRC’s Calls to Action, demand 58 required a formal apology from the head of the Catholic Church. Such a demand emphasizes the role of the Catholic Church in the residential school, in which over sixty percent of schools were run by Catholic nuns, priests, and administrators. In this way, a formal apology would signify the acknowledgement of sexual, physical, and psychological abuses Indigenous children experienced in Residential Schools.


(Re)conciliation is Ongoing


The process of (re)conciliation involves a reciprocal, ongoing relationship between Indigenous peoples and Canadian settlers. Settlers include community members, government officials, public servants, and the general public that enjoys the landscapes, seascapes, and more-than-human relatives that sustained Indigenous peoples for millennia. Both settlers who immigrated in the past 30 years and those who immigrated from Europe or the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries are settlers on Indigenous lands today called Canada.


The reason that “re” is in brackets is to indicate that many Indigenous nations did not bring relationships with settlers that were beneficial to both parties, amicable, and equitable. For instance, the Inuit peoples in Nunavut experienced settler-colonialism rapidly and intensely beginning in the 1950s. With Canada’s need for natural resources, mining and other extractive industries quickly developed in Nunavut without consideration for the existing Inuit population’s use and care of their lands.


The Inuit, among other Indigenous peoples, have been systemically reduced from (re)conciliation initiatives due to the large populations of First Nations and Metis peoples. However, if Canada intends to rectify and redress the hardships of the Residential School System, Canada cannot evade the experiences, traumas, and harms perpetuated against Inuit children. In addition, the Pope’s apology lacks the substance, knowledge, and history required to authentically facilitate (re)conciliation for Residential School survivors and their descendants. 


The Trauma Tour


Irrespective of your religious beliefs, the Pope signifies a privileged, isolated, and contained version of Christianity in the Vatican. For this reason, a simple apology is expected as, for instance, the Pope is not a political scientist, sociologist, anthropologist, or any other profession that would require education and a foundation of the historical context and implications of Residential Schools. 


For instance, Nola Jeffrey, executive director of Tsow-Tun Le Lum Society, noted that the Pope failed to acknowledge the “raped, beat[ings], shame, starv[ation]” of Indigenous children, including scientific experimentation. The intergenerational trauma produced by such experiences is felt today and requires a reciprocal, ongoing effort to support Indigenous nations, communities, and families. 


The Pope held a mass in the Commonwealth Stadium, including a eucharistic prayer in Latin and the disregard for Indigenous cosmologies, traditions, and spiritual practices. Even though Indigenous children often heard this mass in Latin while attending Residential Schools, the mass followed the Pope’s apology and devalued his visit. 


As the Pope is not headed to other parts of Canada, his impact on Indigenous peoples today has led to a dramatic increase in the use of online and in-person support for survivors and their families.

Indigenous Services Canada noted that the 24-hour crisis support line received double the average amount of calls during the Pope’s visit. Indigenous peoples cannot merely “forgive and forget” – parents lost their children, their communities, cultural languages, ways of life, and their being. Such an intense part of Indigenous identity cannot be repaired by one Papal visit.


Thus, the Pope’s presence in Canada began his Trauma Tour, a quest to repair the Catholic Church’s public image while providing lip service to Indigenous peoples. I am a settler, non-Indigenous, and cannot and will not assume the emotions and reactions of Indigenous peoples. With this in mind, I understand the political theatre involved in the Pope’s visit and the underlying lack of government action. There is much to be done; unfortunately, there is barely any political will to address it.

Indigenous women and girls are still missing and murdered, poor housing on reserve and in Indigenous communities, lack of clean drinking water, the mirroring of the Residential School System in the current Child Welfare System, the lack of Indigenous knowledge, laws, and values in the Canadian justice and legal systems, and countless other system issues impact Indigenous peoples today. 

The Pope’s apology is one of 94 Calls to Action – I urge you to keep your elected officials accountable to these demands and to organize in your community to push all levels of government to respect, adopt, and enforce the TRC’s 94 Calls to Action.


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