Canada’s residential schools and my own “penitential pilgrimage”

by Jim Hodgson

Through the six days of the pope’s “Penitential Pilgrimage,” I mostly refrained from comment about the visit. It was best, I felt, that people hear the voices of residential school survivors and other Indigenous people, along with the voice of Pope Francis. I made my own penitential pilgrimage, albeit without travelling far. I am humbled as always by the voices of survivors and their families.

Folks who know me know that I have deep roots in two churches: the Roman Catholic Church and The United Church of Canada. As time goes on, I feel ever more disinclined to choose between them. I stand among them with others as an ecumenical Christian, and among other believers and all people of good will as we discern good ways forward together.

Here begins a three-part series of reflections (accompanied by many links to other articles and documents) from my virtual pilgrimage. Some of what follows is drawn from events of those late July days and other parts come from my reporting of four of Pope John Paul II’s visits (Canada in 1984, the Dominican Republic in 1984 and 1992, and Mexico in 1999), as well as my life as a pilgrim working and travelling between Canada, Latin America and the Caribbean since 1983.

Top left: Remembering the names of some of those who died as a consequence of church-run residential schools. At different moments, Cindy Blackstock, the Gitskan activist and director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, and Mary Simon, Canada’s Governor General, took issue with Pope Francis and his language of reconciliation as gift or grace that seemed to fall short of calling offenders to hard work, truth-telling and understanding.

In my nomadic childhood (which involved sojourns in three provinces before I was four and in yet another after I turned ten), we would occasionally visit relatives in Wetaskwin and Camrose, driving north on Highway 2A through Maskwacis – known in those days to us settler folk as Hobbema. This was in the 1960s and early 70s, and we hadn’t a clue about the Ermineskin Indian Residential School (ERS) that operated there from 1895 to 1975.

I began my virtual pilgrimage by learning more about the school. Many students were from the Ermineskin Cree Nation, and students came as well from the other three Maskwacis bands: Samson Cree Nation, Louis Bull Tribe and Montana First Nation – and from farther away too. ERS was one of the largest residential schools in Canada. In 1956, enrolment peaked at 263 students. 

It was begun by two religious communities: the Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI) and the Sisters of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin (SASV). The sisters left in 1934, and the Oblates gave up management of the school in 1955 and of the student residence in 1969 when the federal government took over the entire complex. 

The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation has compiled stories of what went on there. 

Left: the pope at Lac-Ste-Anne, the traditional pilgrimage site west of Edmonton. Right: greetings at the Governor-General’s residence at the Citadelle de Québec. Catholic media tended to look positively at the pontiff’s apologies, but others were sceptical or dismissive because of what was omitted: acceptance of institutional responsibility.
Left: Murray Sinclair, former head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Right: Mi’kmaq lawyer and professor Pam Palmatar rejected the Maskwacis apology because it omitted the church’s complicity and cover-up of the sexual abuse of thousands of Indigenous children and its role in genocide.
Headlines after the Maskwacis apology, and an excerpt from a commentary by Tanya Talaga.
I was blessed to attend the presentation in Ottawa in 2015 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report and Calls to Action, and so I knew from the stories of survivors that days would come when stories would be believed, truth emerge, and cemeteries uncovered.
On May 28, 2021, the report came that 215 graves of children had been found on the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School. I knew two men, leaders respectively in the Syilx and Nlaka’pamux nations, who survived their attendance at that school and who guided me in the late 1970s into good ways of listening to Indigenous peoples and hearing their stories.

One of the leaders whose words seemed to press my conscience was Natan Obed, the leader of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami – the political organization that represents 65,000 Inuit people across Inuit Nunangat (lands and waters in regions known as the Nunavut territory, Nunavik in northern Québec, Nunatsiavut in Labrador, and the Inuvialuit Settlement Region in NWT). In a conversation with Tanya Talaga, he said, “I may have been naive to think that the institution could come here and apologize in the fullest capacity it possibly can, without the accompanying religious element that ultimately is at odds with the very purpose of the visit.” (I was disappointed that the pope did not immerse himself more fully in Indigenous ceremony; instead, Indigenous people were again immersed in Catholic ceremony. I was appalled by the use of Latin in the mass at the Commonwealth Stadium: a friend said it seemed like conservatives in the church had set out to “sabotage” the pope’s visit.)

After hearing the apology in Maskwacis, Obed told a television reporter that one of the challenges for Indigenous people has been precisely where to seek justice among the religious orders and congregations, bishops and their dioceses, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB), and the Vatican.

I understand that from outside the Catholic Church, it looks monolithic and pyramidal. And as you contend with it, you come to understand that a variety of perspectives and relative levels of autonomy co-exist among the “Catholic entities” (the phrase used during the residential schools settlement negotiations among churches and government). According to the CCCB, about 16 of 70 Catholic dioceses, as well as three dozen Catholic religious communities, were associated with residential schools.

This has resulted in several different apologies from the Catholic entities (dating back to 1991) and diverse responses to demands for release of documents. This is also why it was necessary for the pope, who represents the unity of the church, to apologise here. (Apologies from other churches and governments are listed here.)

Left: Natan Obed greets Pope Francis on his arrival in Edmonton on July 24. “The solidarity we have as intergenerational survivors remains central to the ability for us to work on these issues together,” he told Tanya Talaga. Later in Quebec City, the pope amplified his apology by apologizing for sexual abuse by priests. And the Canadian government finally acceded to demands that it seek the extradition from France of Johannes Rivoire, a 93-year-old former priest who has been charged with sexual abuse in Nunavut.

Next: The church, systemic injustice, social sin and the “doctrine of discovery”

On murder and a birthday cake: Reflections on Colombia’s search for peace with justice

In human rights work, one’s first duty is to those who are harmed. But once in a while, one of the murderers says something that seizes attention as it reveals again the full banality of evil.

On July 19 in northern Colombia, the former professional solider Álex José Mercado asked forgiveness from a young woman for the murder of her father, saying: “The day that he was turned over to me (for killing), he had gone out to get a cake for your birthday.” In another moment, he said that he was not worthy to ask forgiveness from family members, but could only ask for pardon from God. “I lent myself to murder innocent people,” he said. He was 19 at the time at the time of his crimes.

This occurred during a hearing in Valledupar of Colombia’s Special Jurisdiction for Peace (referred to in Spanish as JEP). It’s the transitional tribunal that was set up to prosecute the perpetrators of crimes committed during six decades of armed conflict between the FARC-EP guerrilla fighters and the Colombian state. This hearing focused on the  falsos positivos, the false positives, that occurred just in the northern departments of Cesar and Guajira. In the country as a whole, Colombia’s armed forces kidnapped more than 6,000 young men, murdered them, dressed them as guerrillas, and then tried to pass them off “successes” in its war on “terrorism.”

Others spoke for the victims: 

Left: Pedro Loperena, representing the Wiwa Indigenous people, said: “The economic aid policies of those who gave funds to the military forces must also be re-evaluated, because those resources were used to carry out these misdeeds.” Right: Daniela Rodríguez, spokesperson for the legal representatives of the victims and in the name of the Political Prisoners Solidarity Committee and the José Alvear Restrepo Lawyers’ Collective (CCAJAR), asked that the “centrality of the victims, their desires and expectations, be drives these proceedings.”

When he spoke about aid to the Colombian military, Loperena was polite and understated the problem:

This chart from U.S. civil society organizations shows more than two decades of U.S. aid to Colombia.

Over decades, the U.S. and Colombian governments have successively painted the war as: first, a war against communism; then, a war against drugs; and now, a war against terrorism. But the war in Colombia had its roots in the same struggle that has gone on in Latin America since the time of the European Conquest: the struggle by small farmers, Indigenous people and urban workers for land, social justice and basic human rights.

In the face of a peace process that has had limited support (and sometimes overt opposition) from the Colombian state, headed these past four years by Ivan Duque, that these tribunals continue to function is a triumph

One of the hardest parts of achieving a peace agreement between the Colombian state and the FARC guerrillas was to find language about how to manage crimes committed by state and non-state actors during the conflict. The two sides began negotiating in Havana in November 2012. The agreement on transitional justice and reparations was achieved in 2015 and the full peace accord signed in December 2016. The former adversaries agreed to a form of transitional justice, creating special tribunals to judge crimes committed by both members of the FARC and by state agents. 

It is not an amnesty, despite former president Álvaro Uribe’s characterization of the accord. In fact, that was what was avoided. Under international law that has come into force since the South African transition from apartheid to democracy in 1994, a full amnesty would not be legal. 

In November 2019, the Mesa Ecuménica por la Paz (Ecumenical Table for Peace) presented its report, “Blood of Martyrs, Seeds of Liberation,” to the chair of Colombia’s Truth Commission, Fr. Francisco de Roux SJ. In presenting the report, Omar Fernández acknowledged that it was not possible to encompass all of the many Christian martyrs of this long war: the team focused on those whose pastoral work represented the Church of the Poor.

Another triumph in recent weeks is the publication June 28 of the report of Colombia’s Truth Commission. Speaking July 14 to the United Nations Security Council, commission president Fr. Francisco de Roux said  that Colombia has demonstrated that those wounded by war can come together to build peace, happiness and “produce a tomorrow where there is hope”.  Over the last four years, the Commission has heard from more than 30,000 individuals and bodies and reviewed over 1,000 reports from victimized communities. He urged  the international community to give Colombia “nothing for war.”

Top of the list of recent triumphs is, of course, is the election of a new president, Gustavo Petro, and vice-president, Francia Márquez. Like the truth commission, Petro has criticized the U.S.-led war on drugs. The truth commission has urged Petro to lead a global conversation on changing drug policies, with a focus on regulation over criminalization.

Petro and Márquez will take office on Aug. 7, and already there is talk of capital flight – in effect, a boycott of Colombia by rich investors, including Colombians who already have one foot in Miami. The road ahead – ending the alliances of military forces with paramilitary death squads and drug-traffickers, ending the practice of assassinating leaders of social movements (at least 145 in 2021), protecting rain forests and reducing the grotesque gaps between wealth and poverty – will be difficult as evidenced by this long (and nevertheless incomplete) list of U.S.-sponsored coups and invasions launched against left leaders in Latin America. 

“The narco conquest of Indigenous land is like all the other conquests”

In September 1987, during my first visit to Mexico, I took a train through the Sierra Tarahumara from Chihuahua city to Creel and then along the rim of the spectacular Copper Canyon (left) to Los Mochis on the Pacific coast in Sinaloa state. (Now the same trip is a fancier tourist excursion, the Chepe Express.)

The murders last month in the Sierra Tarahumara of Mexico’s Chihuahua state of two Jesuit priests sparked grief and tension among Indigenous people, the Catholic church and various levels of Mexican government. The priests were Javier Campos Morales, 79, and Joaquín Mora Salazar, 81, known respectively as Gallo and Morita. A third person killed with them, Pedro Heliodoro Palma, was described as a tourist guide. Their bodies were taken by the killers, who were said by police to be linked to the Sinaloa cartel.

Mexican Jesuits recognized “with humility” that in a country with more than 100,000 disappeared people, they were fortunate to recover the bodies of their brothers within 72 hours of their disappearance. “A search that was coordinated among three levels of government reflects intense attention and action are likely not accessible to the immense majority of families whose cases do not gain public attention.”

In the last 30 years, 70 Catholic priests have been murdered in Mexico, including seven during the current presidency of Andrés Manuel López Obrador (known as AMLO). The motives, wrote sociologist Bernardo Barranco in La Jornada, are multiple: theft, kidnapping, extorsion, passion and politics. I would add incidental contact with drug-traffickers who, in this case, seem to have been chasing someone who sought refuge in the church in Cerocahui, municipality of Urique, where the Jesuits have carried out ministry among the Rarámuri Indigenous people in the Sierra Tarahumara. 

In 2006, then-President Felipe Calderón launched a military-led offensive against the drug cartels in an attempt to curb their violent turf wars. Instead, the violence became worse. 

In the town of Creel, in southwest Chihuahua, on Aug. 16, 2008, gunmen opened fire on a group of young people who were participating in a barefoot family race. One of them was carrying his baby in his arms. Some of the youth were related to the town’s mayor but had no link to organized crime. Thirteen people, including the baby, died. 

A few weeks later, Jesuit Fr. Ricardo Robles wrote

For a while now, but especially in recent months, a group of friends and I have been trying to better understand the significance of the evermore extended presence of the narco in the Sierra Tarahumara. It’s the narco-planting, that in some areas has seen four generations of narco-cultivators and has made this way of life become ordinary, indeed almost the only lifestyle now. But it is also the narco-transportation, the narco-struggle for control of territories, the generalized narco-corruption, including paid-for narco-elections, the abundant narco-money-launderers and the small narco-traffickers and narco-consumers

What is new in what we are seeing with the narco? A Rarámuri friend said it is the same thing they have seen for five centuries. “It’s another activity in which Indigenous people are pressured and obliged to work. It was the same with the mines,” he said. “There was the same violence and crime, the same deaths, the same enrichment and impoverishment and in everything we were left with the worst part. The same with the invasion of our territories, the same with the theft of our forests, the same with tourism that even takes our water, the same with the return of the mines. The same when one day they brought the planting of marijuana and poppies. For us it’s the same thing. This is how invasions are, but perhaps for you this seems new.”  

Perhaps all that is truly new is that now the blood is spattered on all of us, that we are all being conquered, tyrannized and forced to submit.

The Spanish conquistadores, hungry for gold and other precious minerals, arrived in the Rarámuri territory in 1589. The Jesuit religious order followed in 1608. They were expelled from the Spanish colony and 19th-century Mexico, but returned after 133 years in 1900 with the intention of educating the Indigenous people. La Jornada journalist Luis Hernández Navarro writes that after facing about 40 years of resistance, the Mexican Jesuits finally began to learn from the Rarámuri. By the 1960s, they had set aside their western notions and moved closer to the Rarámuri cosmovision. The Rarámuri converted the Jesuits “from being carriers of a doctrine into disciples, from being do-gooders into friends of the men and women of the Sierra Tarahumara, and companions in their secular resistance and defence of their freedom and autonomy.” Hernández adds that the two Jesuits killed in June had “accompanied the Rarámuri people who were subjects of their own history and not objects for colonization.”

In 2017, one of Hernández’s own La Jornada colleagues, Miroslava Breach, was murdered after documenting the expansion of organized crimes and its links with political institutions in Chihuahua. The image on the right is from the Committee to Protect Journalists. By the end of June, at least 10 journalists had been killed in Mexico this year.

At the funeral June 25 of the slain priests, Fr. Javier Ávila Aguirre, the Jesuit who serves at Creel, called on President López Obrador during his homily to look again at his approach to public security. “Our tone is peaceful but loud and clear. We call for actions from government that end impunity. Thousands of people in pain and without voice clamour for justice in our nation. Hugs are no longer enough to cover the bullets.”

In his daily news conference on June 30, the president responded: “Those expressions of ‘hugs are not enough.’ What would the priests have us do? That we resolve problems with violence? That we disappear everyone? That we bet on war?”

The point, however, made by human rights groups and some religious leaders, is that after nearly four years AMLO’s approach to the drug war has not produced a noticable reduction in violent attacks on civilians – or priests or journalists. While the president says he is working on the “causes of violence” – poverty, marginalization, exclusion – what people want is protection now. 

The issues raised by the Jesuits and human rights groups should not be seen as normal political attacks on an incumbent politician, but rather contributions in a search for real solutions. 

Bernardo Barranco, the sociologist-columnist cited above, told a La Jornada colleague in an interview that churches are present in places where the state is absent, and that they could have a mediating role. He pointed to the state of Guerrero where, for example, Bishop Salvador Rangel of Chilpancingo-Chilapa negotiated in 2018 with organized crime so as to end the assassination of local candidates and to permit the population to vote. 

Such conversations may not lead to solutions in every instance, but it’s clear that new ideas and less defensive dialogue are needed if Mexico is to find a way forward.

And North American narco-consumers need to say NO to illegal drugs, at least for the sake of solidarity with victims of narco-violence.