Bishops in Saskatchewan propose fundraising appeal for residential school survivors

Holy Rosary Cathedral in Regina, Canada. Credit: Grahampurse via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0). Holy Rosary Cathedral in Regina, Canada. Credit: Grahampurse via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0).

The bishops in Saskatchewan on Saturday announced plans for a fundraising effort across the province to support survivors of residential schools, a system set up by the Canadian government as a means of forcibly assimilating indigenous children, many of which were operated by Catholic entities.

“We have heard the strong request, from Indigenous and Non-Indigenous people in various quarters, to initiate a new fundraising campaign to support survivors and engage more deeply in our own ongoing commitment and response to the Truth and Reconciliation process,” read a July 3 letter from the ordinaries of local Churches in Saskatchewan.

They said they ‘have begun consultations … towards a province-wide fundraising effort.”

A reckoning over Canada’s residential schools began this spring when at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia, the remains of 215 indigenous children were discovered on the weekend of May 22 with ground-penetrating radar. It remains unclear when or how the children died.

The residential school system was set up by the Canadian federal government, beginning in the 1870s, as a means of forcibly assimilating indigenous children and stripping them of familial and cultural ties. 

The Catholic Church or Catholics oversaw more than two-thirds of the schools. The last remaining federally-run residential school closed in 1996.

According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which operated from 2008 until 2015 investigating abuses in the schools, at least 4,100 children died from “disease or accident” at the schools. The locations of many cemeteries could fade from memory over time due to lack of regulation and documentation, and individual grave markers could have been moved or succumbed to the elements.

More than 750 unmarked graves were discovered June 24 at the site of a former residential school on Cowessess First Nation land in Saskatchewan.

“Coming face to face with findings at cemeteries of former residential schools, we have been awakened anew to the waves of suffering from those who have been affected by these schools and the colonial system that fashioned and upheld them, a system with which Catholic Church dioceses and organizations, along with other institutions, were complicit,” the Saskatchewan bishops commented.

They added that “many members of our Catholic community have expressed their solidarity and support for the ongoing work of healing for survivors and their families, which could take the shape of supporting local projects of the National Indian Brotherhood and responding locally to TRC Calls to Action involving a financial commitment, as guided by Indigenous communities here in Saskatchewan.”

The bishops emphasized that regarding the fundraising effort it will be important “to plan well and to coordinate the efforts of various potential participants, and most importantly, to consult with Indigenous dialogue partners, including Survivors, Elders, Knowledge Keepers and Chiefs. Those conversations are already underway and we hope to be able to announce a plan soon.”

Vandalism of churches has continued apace in Canada since the discoveries, likely due to anger at the Church for its role in the residential school system.

On July 1, ten churches, including some of ecclesial communities, were vandalized in Alberta.

Canadian bishops have recently issued apologies for the Church’s role in the residential school system, including Thomas Cardinal Collins of Toronto, Archbishop Marcel Damphousse of Ottawa, and Archbishop J. Michael Miller of Vancouver. In 2014, bishops in Alberta apologized to indigenous communities.

Some Canadian bishops, along with indigenous leaders, will meet with Pope Francis at the Vatican in December, according to the Canadian bishops' conference.

The bishops of Saskatchewan had earlier  expressed support for the “ongoing investigation” of gravesites at former residential schools, while noting that discoveries of unmarked graves “opens deep wounds and brings back terrible memories which re-traumatize.”

“We have heard you telling us that healing and reconciliation can only come after the hard work of listening to the truth, a spirit of repentance, concrete acts of justice, and working with you to bring transformation and healing,” they said to First Nations leaders.

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