Choose one Call to Action and make it personal, suggests TRC Commissioner
By Kiply Lukan Yaworski, Catholic Saskatoon News
Chief Wilton Littlechild has a simple starting suggestion for advancing reconciliation: read the TRC Calls to Action, pick one that speaks to you, and take action right in your own circle.
Littlechild was a member of the national Truth and Reconciliation Commission that issued the 94 Calls to Action after a multi-year process of listening to Residential School Survivors and investigating the history of the Indian Residential School system in Canada.
“In reading those Calls to Action, listen to the one that speaks to you, then make a commitment to implement it, among yourself and your immediate circle of friends; with business confreres, or just within your own family,” suggested Littlechild. “Ask yourself: What can I do as an individual, or what can we do as a collective, to advance reconciliation?”
His suggestion came during a TRC panel public event organized as part of a two-day Catholic Health Association of Saskatchewan (CHAS) provincial convention Oct. 26-27 in Saskatoon. Littlechild spoke via telephone, after a last-minute flight cancellation derailed plans for him to attend the event in person.
Public event in Saskatoon
Held at St. Philip Neri Parish, with support from the parish Truth and Reconciliation Committee, the CHAS panel discussion also included Fr. Ken Thorson, OMI, of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate Lacombe Canada, Indigenous educator and Our Lady of Guadalupe parishioner Sandra Harper, and Regina Archbishop Donald Bolen.
As participants gathered for the event, Elder Gayle Weenie offered a smudge, before the evening opened with words of welcome from Peter Oliver, Executive Director of CHAS.
MC and panel moderator Philomena Ojukwu of the CHAS board of directors presented a land acknowledgment, and led the gathering in an opening prayer, asking God to “guide all the people of our province in our mutual journey towards truth and reconciliation, help us to embrace the Calls to Action as an essential step toward healing and fullness of health.”
Bishop Mark Hagemeon welcomed convention participants to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon and offered opening remarks. He noted that just a few days previously, he and others gathered for a Saskatchewan Catholic School Boards convention in Lloydminster were also able to meet and listen to Chief Wilton Littlechild, a member of Ermineskin Cree Nation who played a key role in the papal apology to Indigenous Peoples at Maskwacis, Alberta in July 2021.
“What came out of the sharing of Chief Littlechild was delight, surprise, and that God is doing great things – but not always in the way that we planned,” said Hagemoen. “Last week Chief Littlechild made it quite clear that this is a long-term journey, and he mentioned that many times. Long-term doesn’t mean we don’t move forward, it means that we don’t rush,” the bishop said, stressing the ministries of listening and presence.
Hagemoen gave a brief summary of Indigenous ministry and the path of truth and reconciliation that has unfolded in recent years in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon, pointing in particular to the work of Our Lady of Guadalupe Indigenous and Métis Catholic Parish in Saskatoon and the ongoing efforts of a Diocesan Council for Truth and Reconciliation (DCTR) established in 2012, as well as the recent establishment of an Indigenous Discernment Circle for local projects to be funded by the Indigenous Reconciliation Fund that is part of the national $30-million fund-raising commitment undertaken by the Canadian Catholic bishops. Hagemoen also stressed the important ongoing reconciliation efforts by Catholic health care and Catholic education in Saskatchewan.
The Cree Canaries family drum group was on hand to perform a song of hope and healing. Before beginning the song, Mario Fiddler spoke about the power of forgiveness and the impact of sharing traditional drum and song, before introducing his children who join him in the group, which has been performing at a range of events for the past several years.
Reflection question presented to panelists: “The TRC Commissioners define reconciliation as restoring respectful relationships. How would you recommend that the people listening this evening internalize, reflect, and respond to the Calls to Action specific to them as individuals and within their respective organizations?”
Panelist Fr. Ken Thorson, OMI, provided an overview of the history of Residential Schools and the involvement of the Catholic Church and the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, beginning with a scripture passage from Isaiah 46:9: “Remember the former things, those of long ago.”
“The schools were part of a structurally sinful system which was incapable of valuing – and was constructed to eradicate – Indigenous culture, religion and language,” he said, reviewing the history of Oblates and Indigenous peoples in Canada.
A reflection at the time of the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the Missionary Oblates in Canada culminated in 1991 at Lac-Ste-Anne, Alberta, where the Oblate leadership delivered an apology for the abuse that happened in Residential Schools operated by the missionary order.
Thorson highlighted portions of the 1991 statement that apologized for the abuse that happened, and the very existence of the schools: “The biggest abuse was that the schools themselves happened, and that the family bond inherent in families was violated as a matter of policy.” In that apology the Oblates committed to collaborate with Indigenous peoples “so that the full story of residential schools might be written, and an effective healing process begun.”
That commitment includes sharing Oblate archival history in support of an effective healing process, he said.
Thorson briefly highlighted the impact of archival materials on the healing journey, as well as the Oblates’ ongoing effort to resolve historic abuse cases, and to make available personnel files of the Oblates who worked in the schools. Recently, the date of release of records after the death of an Oblate was reduced from 50 years to two years “to ensure as speedy access as possible by Indigenous communities to the history that may be contained in these files.”
The Oblates are also building on the historic visit of Pope Francis to Indigenous lands in Canada, Thorson said, as well as “listening from a humble place, listening more than talking… We have much yet to learn and much to do to reconcile, but we are committed to the journey.”
In his presentation via phone call, Chief Wilton Littlechild said he encourages everyone to read the Calls to Action. “It doesn’t take long to read them all,” he noted. “At the same time, I ask them to listen very carefully to the one that speaks to you as an individual…and then, make a commitment to yourself to implement that call.”
Littlechild also encouraged reading the United Nations Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples which took the Canadian TRC principals of reconciliation and made them international. “Now the whole world, through the United Nations, is becoming aware of what reconciliation looks like globally.”
The TRC Calls to Action, the United Nations declaration, the calls for justice for Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls, and Treaties 1 to 11 in Canada all have common threads, he said; in particular “that we have to work together…that is the common message through all this work.”
Littlechild concluded with words in Cree, which he said were offered to his sisters and brothers in the spirit of reconciliation. “As we move forward together as a source of strength, we rely on our language and our spirituality,” he said.
In her presentation, panelist Sandra Harper focused on relationship, grounded in her identity as an Indigenous Catholic woman, the daughter of a Residential School survivor.
“I understand and I feel the effects that the schools have on people. So as such, I try to help and assist in any way I can those people who are in suffering stages, because they are stuck and don’t know what to do with themselves” Harper said.
“We are talking about the effects of Residential Schools and what they did to us as Indigenous people and that assimilation is a really important point… they wanted to take us and make us something that we are not. And that was a wrong, in so many ways and at so many levels,” she said. “There was no reflection about whether we were good enough, or whether we had things that were good enough. We were considered nobody.”
Sitting down together and having discussions and dialogue is vital, she stressed. “These are important things that need to happen for each and every one of us, at our parish level, at our community level, at our family level, all across the board, in order to come to some understanding of our shared history.”
“The truth of the matter was never shared from an Indigenous perspective, so I think as a teacher, my job and my role is to fulfill all those Calls to Action through educating others. So that means sitting with everybody and being part of the discussion. That will lead us to understanding and that will pave a road that we take together.”
Harper also reflected on the apology by Pope Francis and its importance. “He made people feel like they mattered. He validated the existence of Indigenous people and he said this Church was wrong and we as Indigenous people needed to hear that,” she said.
“The motto of truth and reconciliation is restoring respectful relationships. Well then, let’s do it. Lets get together and have a coffee and talk … it is every day when you walk down the street,” she said. “I think this is the time when we could get together, and come together as God’s people to find solutions for everyone.”
She noted how many teachings in the Indigenous world view are similar to the teachings of the Catholic Church. “But we never ever look at them, we never accept them as being valid, and we definitely never are given a chance to share them. And I think it is about time that we decided to do this in a respectful manner,” Harper said. “My God and your God are the same God. It is not different for me because I am Indigenous. It is all the same.”
Archbishop Donald Bolen encouraged those in attendance to read and reflect on the messages of Pope Francis, delivered during his visit to Canada in July 2021.
“In addition to the encouragement to read the Calls to Action (and the United Nations Declaration on Indigenous Peoples), I would also encourage you to read the collective corpus of Pope Francis’ texts while he was here. It is not a long read – those texts were written as a whole” he said. “The pope didn’t come up with these on his own, there was of course, a long dialogue, that involved Canadian bishops, and Indigenous leaders and elders …. These are the fruits of that dialogue and of the pope’s very careful listening.”
A commitment to telling the truth is a starting point, Bolen said. “We lived with a distorted understanding of our history in this nation. We lived with a very reductionist way of telling the story of who we are as Canadians. The Truth and Reconciliation process brought us all back to school, and taught us that we were missing the experience of Indigenous people , we were missing the waves of suffering that were caused by colonization and by Residential Schools, the Sixties Scoop, the Indian Act, the whole series of events. And now we need to learn to tell our story more accurately and fully.”
He encouraged his listeners to become allies in the pursuit of justice – to address ongoing and “pressing elements of systemic injustice in our society,” such as poverty, incarceration rates, addictions, suicide, access to health, and access to water. “The work of solidarity is the work of listening to Indigenous Peoples, engaging in dialogue, building relationships, finding out where there is injustice, and finding out how we can be in solidarity with that work,” Bolen said.
He echoed Pope Francis’ call to be advocates for Indigenous language, culture, and traditions, “because they are rich and they are beautiful and they have wisdom, and they were wrongly suppressed, and taken away, and finding right relations means assisting in giving back what was lost.”
Finally, he called attention to the wisdom of Indigenous ways of living on the land, living with creation, and the Indigenous understanding that all is connected. “That is a vision, a way of seeing the world, to be learned from.”
“The whole visit of the pope was under the banner of walking together,” Bolen said, noting the message written in a Quebec guest book by the Holy Father: “walking together is not easy, but it is possible.”
CHAS Convention 2023
The TRC panel was one part of a two-day CHAS convention, exploring the theme “Holistic Care: Healing Through Spirit, Story and Song.” Other convention sessions held at Queen’s House in Saskatoon included an opening keynote by Rev. David Maginley on near-death experiences, and a closing keynote on accompaniment and compassionate presence.
Other feature presentations included “Understanding the impact of Catholic health in Canada today” by John Ruetz, CEO of the Catholic Health Alliance of Canada, and a presentation by Anna Marie Vargas-Leveriza and Maricela Campa highlighting how to better respond to people experiencing a mental health crisis.
Convention breakout sessions addressed supporting people immigrating from Ukraine, by Fr. Ivan Nahachewsky, Vicar General and Chancellor of the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy; the healing spirituality of St. Therese of Lisieux presented by Fr Kevin McGee, Vicar General of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon; and providing holistic care for marginalized and high-risk populations, presented by Katelyn Roberts and Dr. Morris Markentin of Sanctum Care Inc.
The convention also included awards and an Annual General Meeting.
Kiply Lukan Yaworski is the communications coordinator for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon – rcdos.ca