By Caroline Sharp
This article contains sensitive content which some people may find offensive or disturbing.
Phyllis Webstad has a story to share.
It involves a little girl, her grandmother, and a lovely, brand new orange T-shirt. Phyllis’ grandmother managed to scrounge up some money so that she would have a nice new outfit to wear for her first day of school. Sadly, when Phyllis arrived, everything was taken from her, including her orange shirt.
This is not my story to tell, however, Phyllis claims that “the color orange has always reminded [her] of that and how [her] feelings didn’t matter, how no one cared” and she felt like she was worth nothing (https://www.orangeshirtday.org).
“All of the little children were crying and no one cared.”
This story is quite common for Indigenous children who attended residential schools up until 1996 when the last residential school closed in Canada.
This year has been a big year for apologies and working towards truth and reconciliation! Both the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. Justin Welby, and Pope Francis of the Roman Catholic Church have come to Canada to meet with Indigenous Peoples across the country. These visits have proven that much work remains to be done.
For me, it was not until these last few years that Truth and Reconciliation meant anything. During these last few years, I have learned that my grandmother was Mi’kmaq but because of when she got married, she had to give up her status when she married my grandfather, an Irishman. This would not have been done lightly either as the granddaughter of an iconic chief and elder in his community.
To amplify this news, I began working for Kairos Canada this year as the administrative associate for Kairos Blanket Exercises. I watched the pope’s visit closely to see if he would actually apologize for the church’s actions or rescind the documents that created this mess in the first place.
Sadly, many Indigenous Peoples did not get the apology or actions they have been praying for and the healing process continues. We may hold our breath for an eternity and never get the apology that has been wanted so badly.
According to Peter Meehan, president and vice-chancellor (but not theologian) of St. Jerome's University at the University of Waterloo, “Catholic theology teaches that while there can be "bad actors" in the church who sin, it is considered to be Jesus's "mystical body," which does not sin” (https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/the-pope-s-apology-was-a-start-now-the-real-work-begins-some-catholics-and-indigenous-leaders-say-1.6531879).
Jesus was not a sinner but that age old question “what would Jesus do?” sits in my head. What parable would he come up with when we greet him on the road coming into our cities? Would he flip tables and tell us we missed the point? Perhaps Jesus would dine with the Indigenous Peoples and leave out the religious institution.
Although I generally do not encourage anyone to compare people, I do invite you to consider an alternate reality. Instead, imagine your grandparent or parent in Phyllis’ shoes. Imagine that they were torn from their families, made to speak a different language, wear funny clothes and learn new customs. After their identity and culture were taken from them, imagine them being fed food that we wouldn’t feed our dogs today and being horribly abused - physically, mentally, and/or sexually. IF they survived residential school and went on to have a family, imagine them not knowing how to raise a child.
Although they were loved tremendously by their families, growing up without love in a residential school impacted their ability to raise their own children. Imagine how different your life might be if you were never properly loved as a child.
If this is hard to imagine, there’s a good chance your ancestors were settlers.
Perhaps, like me, you were never taught the true history between settlers and First Nations Peoples. If this is the case, I highly recommend attending a Kairos Blanket Exercise (KBE)!
The exercise is not intended to make one feel guilty about what their ancestors may have done. The exercise gives a voice to those whose voices were stolen and to help everyone understand what exactly happened and why we so desperately need to work hand in hand with Indigenous Peoples in reconciliation.
If you can’t attend a KBE, go to a pow wow or study up on Indigenous history written from an Indigenous perspective. If you are not Indigenous, you can be an ally! It may not be your place to share someone else’s story BUT you can help amplify those voices whose stories need to be told.
Caroline Sharp is a tri-chair of SEJH.