Evidence of some graves has disappeared due to the decay of wooden grave markers and graveyard fences.
Government officials aimed to pay only the bare minimum for the cost of burials and rarely paid to return the bodies of deceased children to their home communities. Some deaths went unreported because institutions were overwhelmed by an epidemic situation, Hamilton believes.
Indigenous children suffered and died from communicable diseases at much higher rates than the general population in the 19th and early 20th centuries. These vulnerabilities were worsened by the poor conditions at “crowded, often unsanitary, and poorly constructed residential schools,” Hamilton said in a report to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
As late as 1945, the death rate among indigenous children at the schools was as almost five times the death rate of other Canadian children the same age. This dropped to twice the average by the mid-20th century, in part due to the arrival of effective antibiotics and other improved medical care.
In the early twentieth century there was at least one suggestion to address the threat of disease by closing the residential schools and moving to a day school model on reservations. Catholics involved in running the residential schools, however, did not support the proposed change, according to the commission, and this suggestion was dropped.
For Deacon Nahanee, one biblical image is particularly relevant to respond to this era of Canadian history.
“Indigenous people need to see Catholic people with contrite hearts,” Deacon Nahanee said, adding that this contrition is “the deepest sorrow for something that has been committed against other people.”
Catholics “need to not only feel that, but feel that they need and want to do something to help those who faced the injustice against those children,” he said. “They need to have that if they want to serve in indigenous communities.”
When children returned home in their mid-teens, Deacon Nahanee explained, parents and relatives were “powerless again to re-integrate these grown children into family life.” He compared the returned children to those who served as child soldiers.
“You cannot bring them back to where they were before, to deal with the issues that they have: post-traumatic stress from the residential school,” he said.
The commission report cited the example of John Kibash, a student who was taught only in French. When he returned to his family, he could no longer speak his parents’ language of Algonquin. He “found it almost impossible to communicate with them the abuse he experienced at the school.”
“These were real children, children who were put in the care of members of the Catholic Church,” Deacon Nahanee said. Those running the schools “were serving more the federal government than the God they were supposed to represent.”
“The brokenness of former students is not repaired by apologies. We know actions speak louder than words,” he added, saying the trauma of the residential schools “lasted for generations.”
“When these children became parents, they lacked the example of growing up in a family. This made them vulnerable to efforts to remove children from their homes on the grounds of child neglect, in another program of the Canadian government that deliberately placed indigenous children in homes with white parents.”
This controversial program was known as the “Sixties Scoop.” For Deacon Nahanee, this was “another double whammy” for Canada’s indigenous people.
The Catholic deacon and Squamish elder wants concrete action to make reparations to indigenous communities. He has one proposal of his own.
“The Catholic Church took away the language, spirituality and culture of indigenous children. I believe they need to bring that back,” he said, citing Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommendations that the Church pay for language lessons and similar programs.
Deacon Nahanee advocates the creation of an “indigenous Catholic rite of the Mass” that uses native communities’ languages and songs.
“I think that’s the way that the Church can truly reconcile. If they want to ‘walk with us’, then they will help us in what we need to do to bring our language back,” said Deacon Nahanee, whose proposed liturgy would still include translations into languages like English.
With Masses held every Sunday, native languages would be “protected and embedded into Church culture, so that people in our Squamish community, for example, can learn their language.”
“More people attend funerals than go to church on Sunday,” he added. “I believe that if they saw our language being used, they would certainly recognize that as a nod from the Church that things are changing.”
“That’s what I call a reconciliation,” said Deacon Nahanee.
He voiced concern that Catholic rules and canon laws regarding marriage hinder indigenous people from being married in the Church, being baptized, or receiving Communion if their previous marriages were irregular.
Deacon Nahanee was also deeply concerned that a disproportionate number of indigenous people are in Canadian prisons today and make up a disproportionate number of missing women and children.
Archbishop Gagnon said the Catholic Church has had a long association with indigenous people, sometimes dating back centuries.
“Often on the ground in the indigenous communities themselves from my own personal experience in Winnipeg, our relationship with indigenous leaders continues to be good,” the archbishop said. “Relationships have been established. There’s a good groundwork there to work on.”
Archbishop Gagnon said a group of bishops representing the Canadian bishops’ conference has been working on dialogue with national and indigenous leaders and planning a delegation to Pope Francis representing Canada’s three indigenous groups: the First Nations, the Inuit, and the Metis, the last of whom are a uniquely Canadian group of mixed European and indigenous ancestry. Pope Francis has allocated a day each for representatives from each group.
“The Pope has set aside an extraordinary amount of time for us and we’re looking forward to it very much,” said Archbishop Gagnon. He reported that many indigenous people are Catholic. In a First Nation reserve or territory, there will be a minority of people who regularly practice their Catholic faith.
“Many of these communities have long Catholic connections. They honor the history, their connection with the Church in the early days. I’ve heard that many times,” he said. “I’ve met quite a few elders who are fully Catholic and fully traditional. They find the traditional teachings of their Catholic faith to be in most part pretty well in harmony and the two complement one another.”
“I think the indigenous people have a lot to offer the Church, and the Church to them,” the archbishop continued. “Our basic Catholic teachings are not unlike a lot of the traditional teachings of the indigenous people. They are very much connected to the natural order: what we learn from nature, what nature teaches us. We Catholics can recognize this in our teaching on natural law.”
Some former students of residential schools reported positive experiences in testimony and other records collected by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Archbishop Gagnon said, but “they were not by any means a majority.”
“The overall picture of the schools and their effect on the indigenous people is quite obvious, and I think that’s a thing we certainly need to deal with.”
Deacon Nahanee himself was not part of the residential school system. Instead, he attended an
Indian day school run by the federal government where Catholic religious sisters were teachers.
He recounted that in seventh grade religion class, for several Mondays, he was the only student who did not raise his hand when the sister asked if he had attended church on Sunday.
On his own initiative, he decided “to go down to church to see what it was like.”
“And what I saw was the elders serving in different ministries at St. Paul’s Church here in North Vancouver. I could tell they loved doing what they were doing because I could see it in their eyes. They became mentors to me,” he said. “I just watched their actions. Even though they attended the residential school they still helped out with the Church.”
Kevin J. Jones is a senior staff writer with Catholic News Agency. He was a recipient of a 2014 Catholic Relief Services' Egan Journalism Fellowship.