Reconciliation With Canada’s First Nations

Sr. Marie Zarowny, SSA,
a longtime advocate of
aboriginal peoples,
herself attended Indian
Residential Schools
Editor: This is a summary of a talk given By Sr. Marie Zarowny, SSA, St. Joseph’s Parish, Ottawa, Canada. The full text is available as a PDF.

Background: In the 19th century, the Canadian government believed it was responsible for educating and caring for the country's aboriginal people. It thought their best chance for success was to learn English and adopt Christianity and Canadian customs. Ideally, they would pass their adopted lifestyle on to their children, and native traditions would diminish, or be completely abolished in a few generations.
The Canadian government developed a policy called "aggressive assimilation" to be taught at church-run, government-funded industrial schools, later called residential schools. The government felt children were easier to mold than adults, and the concept of a boarding school was the best way to prepare them for life in mainstream society. Residential schools were federally run, under the Department of Indian Affairs. Attendance was mandatory. Agents were employed by the government to ensure all native children attended.
The historic Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (2007) mandated the Government of Canada to establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission ( The Commission was initially appointed in 2008 with a broad mandate to inform all Canadians about the 130 year history of the schools and to guide and inspire a process of reconciliation and renewed relationships based on mutual understanding and respect…
Residential School in Kamloops,
British Columbia, Canada
In 1996 the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples published its report, People to People – Nation to Nation. In their introduction, the Commissioners stated: 
Canada is a test case for a grand notion - the notion that dissimilar peoples can share lands, resources, power and dreams while respecting and sustaining their differences. The story of Canada is the story of many such peoples, trying and failing and trying again, to live together in peace and harmony.

But there cannot be peace or harmony unless there is justice. It was to help restore justice to the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in Canada, and to propose practical solutions to stubborn problems, that the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples was established. In closing the report, the Commissioners stated: 
We talk at some length about new structures of governance, new strategies for economic development, new kinds of social programs. But at heart, what we want to do is something more radical. It is to bring about change in human lives. It is to ensure that Aboriginal children grow up knowing that they matter  - that they are precious human beings deserving love and respect, and that they hold the keys to a future bright with possibilities in a society of equals. 
Fr. René
Fumoleau, OMI
…Fr. René Fumoleau, a priest of the Society of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, lived and worked with the Dene Nation in Canada’s North for over 50 years. He described the colonization and oppression of the First Nations of these lands as Canada’s original sin. This “sin” has endured throughout the centuries and provides the context and the lens through which we understand both the Residential Schools and Canada’s other acts of injustice and discrimination. These attitudes of superiority, discrimination and entitlement gave rise to structures which further embedded the attitudes into all aspects of the civic and even faith community, from one generation of the dominant settler population to the next and which continue today…
For many, these were the experiences of the residential schools. The schools were what we could now call a sinful social structure
Fr. Robert Schreiter, C.PP.S.
We in Canada are living in what Christians call a “graced time.”  It is our privilege as Canadians at this moment of history to be invited into a process of reconciliation by those whom Canada has victimized.
True reconciliation is initiated by the one or group that has been hurt, oppressed, discriminated against, or sinned against. During our times, the First Nations of this land have called on the Government of Canada, Canadians and the Churches for acknowledgement of what we have done to them; they have been pleading with us in a variety of ways to hear their pain and to acknowledge our role in it; to in some way provide reparation; and to enter into a new relationship built on mutual respect. 
Very briefly, a Christian understanding of Reconciliation (as articulated in recent writings and talks by theologian, Fr. Robert Schreiter, C.PP.S.) has three characteristics: 

1. God, the Divine, is the author of reconciliation: We participate in what God is bringing about and in so doing we engage in something sacred… Members of First Nations express this well by the ceremonies and prayers that accompany gestures of reconciliation. Those of us who were in the House of Commons on June 11th, 2008, or who watched it on television experienced the richness of such ceremony. 
2. God’s first concern in reconciliation is for the healing of the victims. – Not to make the wrongdoer feel better. 
3. In reconciliation, God makes of both victim and wrongdoer a new creation characterized by equity and trust; In profound experiences of hurt, it is impossible to go back to where we were before; we can  only go forward to a new place. In this process, God wants both the healing of the victim and the repentance/the  conversion of the wrongdoer. Both need to be brought to a new place, a new creation.

How does this happen?  

1. Truth-telling: The silence that hides the wrongdoing is broken; the lies and distortions that bring shame on 
individuals and groups of people and that isolate people from one another, in order that the power of one group can be exercised over another is revealed… 
Truth-telling, if it is to be part of God’s process of reconciliation, must break the codes of silence that hide wrongdoing against poor and vulnerable members of a society; it must also be the whole truth, both for the victims and for the alleged wrongdoers.   
2. Pursuit of Justice:  Canada’s history of colonization, of which the establishment of the Residential Schools was such a significant part, is a history of injustice. In Catholic Social Teaching we refer to social sin or structural sin. An example of social sin is when one group of people seeks to dominate another, to take away from the other its identity and culture. It becomes structural when institutions are put in place to achieve these goals and laws are made to uphold them. Is this not the history of Canada’s relationship with First Nations and indeed of the  Residential Schools? 
Assembly of First Nations National Chief
(1997-2009), Phil Fontaine, had a
meeting with Pope Benedict XVI in 2009
to obtain an apology for Residential
School abuses during the 20th century
…I would add that it is a task that also demands insight and determination. Throughout my over 30 years of working with First Nations communities, I have consistently heard the call for justice …for adequate resources, health care, housing, education, self-determination and land rights. I am firmly convinced that unless we in Canada recognize and begin to dismantle the attitudes of superiority and structures of inequality that characterize our relationships with First Nations, we will not truly achieve reconciliation. We will not have become part of a new creation…
The Assembly of First Nations National Chief, Phil Fontaine… in his words to the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops in September, 2008 stated… “For our people, reconciliation means the eradication of First Nations poverty …and doing so will require the support and engagement of all Canadians.” He reiterated that we in the Catholic Church have a significant role to play, especially in using our influence, experience and commitment to help lift native people out of poverty.
Role of Truth and Reconciliation Commission
Proud member of Ahousat
Nation, living on
Vancouver Island
Perhaps the greatest contribution of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission will be the space it creates for truth-telling and the historic documentation it will provide for future generations. Hopefully, it will raise consciousness in Canadians about our historic and continuing attempts to treat First Nations and some others in our society as inferior and will lead us to seriously examine our attitudes of superiority, discrimination and domination. 
Role of Individuals and Communities
…Louis Frank, an elder from Ahousat Nation on Vancouver Island, said in conversation recently that we need to start with people; that this is not about solving a problem or about politics; it is about people who have been hurting and about relationships. 
There is a continuing role for parishes, dioceses, church organizations and Religious Congregations. How can we enhance our engagement with groups of First Nations? How can we as individuals and as a parish/organization influence Government Leaders to recognize and respond to the injustices still experienced by many First Nations?
…By contributing to the campaign every Catholic individual and organization can be directly involved in the reconciliation process. The campaign, entitled Moving Forward Together,  ( will include a “pew collection” in every parish. Besides providing Catholics with the opportunity to contribute, these collections provide all leaders and educators with a wonderful opportunity to inform their congregations of the history of colonization and of the schools and to engage members in working to change current unjust structures and policies.  
…I believe that the time is NOW to truly, as Canadians, enter into this process of reconciliation. On our part it will require the ability to listen empathetically and non-defensively; to accept responsibility for the actions of our predecessors, some of our contemporaries and perhaps even ourselves; to make retribution in some way; to create structures that ensure recognition of the rights and dignity of all people; and to walk together into the future in a new relationship.
Let us not miss this graced moment.