Who are the missing Aboriginal children? What is the reality of residential school cemeteries? What is the Church doing to promote justice and reconciliation?
Days before Pope Francis’s “penitential journey” to the country (July 24-30, 2022), the vice provincial of the Jesuit province of Canada, Father Gilles Mongeau, S.J., sheds light on the history of relations between settlers and their descendants and indigenous peoples.
How are the Jesuits involved in the process of reconciliation with the indigenous peoples?
We began the path of reconciliation in the early 1990s, when we committed ourselves to making financial restitution and making our resources available. For example, we had many dictionaries, which we made available to help indigenous communities recover their traditional languages. The destruction of indigenous languages was one of the features of the residential schools. We also opened up our archives, which are now on full display at the National Center for Truth and Reconciliation. Historically, we had only one Jesuit residential school in Northern Ontario, in Spanish, a very large institution that was open until 1958. One of our missions today is to accompany survivors, that is, former students of the residential schools.
What kind of abuse did you see in these schools?
It depends on the school. Abuse comes chiefly in three forms: very harsh physical punishments that you could call physical abuse; sexual abuse; and then cultural genocide, which is the main abuse being considered today. It was a harm that weighed not only on these particular children, but also on all those born into their families after them. These children were no longer connected to their families. The trauma of the loss of culture, of language, is profound, and it affects subsequent generations. One survivor I knew well confided to me, “I never had a real father, so I didn’t know how to be a father to my children.” This touches on very deep psychological realities.
We also talk a lot about missing children. How many are there and what do we know about them?
Since the closure of the residential schools, we are discovering that the children who died in the residential schools were buried on these sites or in nearby cemeteries, without always being properly identified. In Aboriginal communities, there are children who never returned home and no one knows what happened to them. As for the number, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has made an estimate [Editors’ note: more than 4,000] but many believe that it could be revised.
Pope Francis was invited by the Canadian government in 2017, but the bishops didn’t join that invitation until the fall of 2021. Was there any hesitation about the reconciliation process on the side of the episcopate?
There was no hesitation about the process itself. But there was a lot of fear about two things: on the one hand, the potential cost of a visit. The last visit of St. John Paul II (in 2002) was very costly and some dioceses found it very difficult to bear the burden. On the other hand, there is concern about the legal consequences of formal apologies. The reality is that in the 1990s, the Jesuits in Canada came close to bankruptcy covering financial reparations. And for some dioceses, this is too great a danger.
Until recently, many of the Catholic faithful did not understand the depth of the damage done. Until two years ago, one could hear responses such as, “Yes, but we gave them an education.” These are the remnants of a colonizing mindset. There was a blindness. But there was a turning point with the announcement of the discovery of the unnamed graves in Kamloops in the spring of 2021. This was a rallying point for real transformation among the Catholic faithful. Finally, the urgency to embark on the path of reconciliation and to risk legal proceedings became clear.
The discovery of Kamloops awakened the public consciousness, but even today, the story is still debated…
The story was sensationalized in the media, and in a way it had a good effect. But as research has progressed, nuances have been added, drawing a more realistic picture of what happened. I can only speak from our experience to clarify: We were always aware of the existence of the Spanish cemetery, at least approximately, by listening to survivors and elders. Even though it was not well maintained, and even though we did not have accurate mapping, we had an idea of it. We knew that the graves had names, that the wooden crosses had been deteriorated by time, we knew the location of the cemetery. We had a thread and this is true for many communities. But last spring, nobody talked about it. Now that a more realistic story is being uncovered, some may use it as an excuse to refuse to take steps toward repentance.
In light of all this, what do you think will be the most important moment of the Pope’s trip?
When the pope makes an apology on aboriginal territory in Edmonton. This will be the most significant moment of the trip. For Aboriginal Catholics, his presence in the two places dedicated to St. Anne (Lac Ste. Anne and Sainte-Anne de Beaulieu) will be an important moment of celebration.
This trip is a beginning. The process of reconciliation will take a long time. I tell the young Jesuits for whom I am responsible that this will be a significant part of the rest of their Jesuit lives. For me, the most important lesson that the Canadian Church can learn is not to be leaders, but to let the Aboriginal peoples lead us. One of the things we can learn as a church from Aboriginal culture and spirituality is to live in a more just relationship with creation.