For more than a century, Indigenous children in Canada were forced to attend residential schools, where many endured abuse. Thousands were never seen again and survivors were long ignored. We followed a team of archaeologists who came to the Muskowekwan First Nation to search for the graves of these lost children.
The Superior Court of Quebec has authorized a class-action lawsuit against a Catholic Church missionary congregation for sexual abuse committed on more than 200 victims, many of whom were children, from 1940 onwards.
The lawsuit request was first filed in 2018 regarding sexual assaults allegedly committed in Basse-Côte-Nord (Lower North Shore), Que., by Father Alexis Joveneau — who died over 25 years ago — and other religious members of the congregation.
On Tuesday, the Superior Court authorized the suit following a hearing that took place on Nov. 1, which saw many of the victims from different communities attend by videoconference.
The case states that the Catholic group, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate — founded by a French Catholic priest in the south of France in 1816 — was “very present” in many Innu, Atikamekw, Anishinaabe, Cree, Inuit and non-native communities of Quebec.
The lead plaintiff in the case is Noëlla Mark, who is now in her early 60s and lives in Unamen Shipu, a small Innu First Nations community in the province.
More than 200 alleged victims, both men and women, have since contacted the law firm representing the plaintiff to sign on to the lawsuit.
The suit states that the religious congregation is directly responsible for the sexual assaults committed by its members, adding that the congregation must have known that Father Alexis Joveneau and other priests sexually abused vulnerable people under their control.
Lawyers representing the plaintiffs said Wednesday that more than 30 missionaries have been identified as suspected perpetrators.
The Superior Court’s judgement authorizing the class-action highlights five main priests in the case: Fathers Alexis Joveneau, Omer Provencher, Edmond Brouillard, Raynald Couture and Edouard Meilleur.
Lawyer Alain Arsenault said in 2018 that the abuse involved children aged eight to 10 years old, and that it went on for years.
Anyone who believes they are a victim of abuse by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate congregation is asked to contact lawyers at Arsenault-Dufresne-Wee, the firm handling the case.
Bringleson says Catholics should be able to put questions to the church’s leadership and get decent answers. Instead, leaders are often bogged down in other issues like gay marriage, he says.
“If two men want to get married in Canada, every bishop in the country is writing a letter about it. But these graves being uncovered, and our role in it, which needs to be examined and looked at, it’s not a quick fix,” he said in an interview with CBC Manitoba’s Information Radio last Monday.
“Nobody wants to remain vulnerable. Especially in the church, the clergy has safety in holy orders. It makes it very difficult to want to be vulnerable with people. It’s not our first instinct, and yet that’s where we need to be.”
However, neither the Pope nor the Vatican have offered an official apology.
‘This, I cannot condone’: parishoner
Linda Ducharme, a Métis Catholic, said after the discovery of the unmarked graves, she won’t go back to her Catholic church in St. Ambroise, Man., until the Pope apologizes.
“I refuse to support the Catholic church until the church apologizes for its part and asks for forgiveness,” she said.
“I’m a devout Christian. I turned to the Catholic church because it’s the only one here. But this, I cannot condone.”
Ducharme says she cried for days, not only for the children forced to attend residential school children, but also for their parents. Neither had a voice, she says.
“They took those little kids, put them in these enclosed spaces, like pig farming and chicken farming today. All crowded in there, not properly fed or cared for.
“A lot of them probably died from disease too, but the way they treated the bodies — they didn’t let the parents know, they just wrapped them in a blanket and buried them. That is so disrespectful and so wrong.”
Some Catholic churches across the country have also been vandalized or burned.
Ducharme says that’s not the way to accomplish anything.
“I do not agree with the burning of the churches. That doesn’t help anybody. It doesn’t solve the problem. We know you’re mad, but going out and being destructive doesn’t solve anything.”
However, Ducharme says she has lost her sense of patriotism for the usually celebratory holiday.
“It sure doesn’t make you proud to be a Canadian. And I used to be so proud to be Canadian,” she said.
This year, “even if I wasn’t busy moving my daughter, we wouldn’t have celebrated. My heart was with them.”
Gordon Elijah Mackintosh, a practising Catholic in Winnipeg, also hopes the church will recognize its wrongs.
“I was getting really upset over the news coming out. I’ve been going to church my whole life, and I just felt like I needed to say something,” said Mackintosh, 31.
He’s disappointed in the silence from many in the Catholic community.
“Considering one of the main sacraments is reconciliation and being forgiven, I think they really need to show the Indigenous community and really everyone that they mean what they say,” he said.
Truth, acceptance necessary for change
In terms of reconciliation, the churches and government have a lot of work to do, says Sean Carleton, an assistant professor of history and Indigenous studies at the University of Manitoba.
Churches should be transparent with historical records that many churches held back, he says, and making all of them available immediately is a good first step.
“One thing that is very clear, coming out of the TRC [Truth and Reconciliation Commission] — if Canadians are really serious about reconciliation, we have to have truth first. Truth before reconciliation.”
In terms of Canada’s role in the residential school system, Carleton stresses the need for the entire country to face the effects of its history.
“Canadians are having a hard time and are struggling with the fact that it’s not a historical problem. I don’t think people really understand the intergenerational effects this really has for Indigenous people today,” he said.
“There are pockets of multiculturalism and tolerance, but there is also ongoing oppression, genocide. And that’s something that is coming to the fore.”
Pope Francis will meet with Indigenous leaders later this year to discuss coming to Canada to apologize for the church’s role in operating schools that abused and forcibly assimilated generations of Indigenous children, a step toward resolving the grievances of survivors and Indigenous communities, the head of Canada’s largest Indigenous organization said on Wednesday.
In a statement, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops said that the pope will meet separately at the Vatican with the representatives of Canada’s three biggest Indigenous groups — the First Nations, the Métis and the Inuit — during a four-day series of meetings in December that will culminate in a joint session with all three.
“Pope Francis is deeply committed to hearing directly from Indigenous Peoples, expressing his heartfelt closeness, addressing the impact of colonization and the role of the Church in the residential school system,” the bishops wrote.
Canada’s Indigenous leaders have long called for a papal apology for the church’s role in the residential schools, a government-created system that operated for about 113 years and that a National Truth and Reconciliation Commission called “cultural genocide.”
Those calls have intensified since May, following announcements by three Indigenous communities that ground penetrating radar has revealed many hundreds of unmarked graves containing human remains, mostly of children, at the sites of former schools in British Columbia and Saskatchewan. While both disease and violence were widespread at the schools, the scans offer no information about how the children died.
Catholic orders ran about 70 percent of the schools on behalf of the government. Despite a direct plea from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in 2017, the pope has consistently refused to apologize for the church.
Three Protestant denominations that also ran residential schools apologized long ago and contributed millions of dollars to settle in 2005 a class-action suit brought by former students.
The Catholic Church, however, has since raised less than four million Canadian dollars, or $3.2 million, of its 25 million dollar share of the settlement.
The delegation of Indigenous leaders will push the question of compensation at the Vatican meetings, said Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Canada’s largest Indigenous organization. However, their focus will be on persuading the pope to come to Canada to apologize.
The news of the Vatican meeting came as the third Canadian Indigenous community announced on Wednesday that it had found 182 human remains near a former school for Indigenous children run by the Catholic church.
At the St. Eugene’s Mission School, located in British Columbia on the land of a First Nation which renders its name as ʔaq’am, Indigenous leaders said that a search that started last year has found 182 unmarked graves, some of them just three to four feet deep.
Chief Bellegarde said that the Indigenous groups had been trying for two years to schedule this meeting with the pope. But he said that it remains unclear which, if any, of their requests that the pope will agree to.
“There are no guarantees of any kind of apology or anything coming forward, there’s no guarantee that he’ll even come back to Canada,” Chief Bellegarde said. “But we have to make the attempt and we have to seize the opportunity.”
A national Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that physical, mental and sexual abuse were common at the schools, which operated for over 100 years, starting in the late 19th century. Many of the schools were overcrowded, their children afflicted by disease and, in some cases, malnutrition. All of them rigorously, and sometimes violently, enforced prohibitions on Indigenous languages and cultural practices.
In May, Canadians were shocked to learn that ground penetrating radar had revealed the remains of 215 people, mostly children, near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia.
Last week the shock was compounded after a First Nation in Saskatchewan said that the technology had found 751 remains at the site of a former school on its land.
The St. Eugene’s Mission School, where the discovery of remains was announced on Wednesday, was operated between 1890 and 1969 by Catholic orders, including the Oblates of Mary Immaculate.
In a statement released Wednesday, the Lower Kootenay Band said the remains likely belonged to people from the bands of Ktunaxa Nation — of which it is a member — and other neighboring Indigenous communities.
The search, which is continuing, was organized by the ?aq’am First Nation, which informed Chief Jason Louie of the Lower Kootenay Band about its initial findings last week. After making the discovery public on Wednesday, Chief Louie said that he is less interested in a papal apology than criminal charges being brought against members of the church involved in running the school.
“We’re beyond apologies, we need to talk about accountability,” he said. “If Nazi war criminals can be tried at an elderly age for their war crimes, I think we should be tracking down the living survivors of the church — being the priests and the nuns — who had a hand in this.”
While the emerging stories about Indian residential school cemeteries in Canada are shocking to many, they are not to many Native Americans and First Nation citizens.
When I wrote my master’s thesis for my first master’s degree in public administration 30 years ago in 1991, it was focused on federal Indian policy. It focused all of the Indian policy periods throughout U.S. history.
Included in the various periods was the Indian boarding school era. It was by far the hardest part of my thesis. Because I was interested in understanding this fully, I read all kinds of accounts of the experience lived from individuals who were part of this dark chapter in history. It took me two and a half years to write my thesis because it was heartbreaking to delve deep into the boarding school experience.
One of the most psychologically challenging accounts to read was how the missionaries used wooden blocks to stop Indian children from speaking their language. Some of the Indian boys and girls were told their parents had died so they wouldn’t try to escape the boarding school. When these children tried to mourn their parents because they believed they had died, the missionaries prohibited them from exercising their traditional funeral rituals.
Many American Indian boarding schools have their own cemeteries. Could you imagine sending your child off to a boarding school today if they had a graveyard in the backyard?
For all of those counterculture people or those who claim that critical race theory should not be taught, they are on the side of whitewashing American history. In psychology and sociology there is a term called cognitive dissonance. Those terms as well as the concept of collective denial, is why we don’t learn about these facts in American history.
Most aspects of American Indian history are not taught in schools. Certainly, the Indian boarding school era is not part of the curriculum.
Did you know U.S. Japanese internment camps were modeled after the first Indian reservation experience?
Did you know that germ warfare and ethnocide was born in American Indian history?
Did you know the concept of Indian blood quantum, the amount of Indian blood you have, initially a system the federal government placed on tribes in an effort to limit their citizenship, was created to under count and eventually eradicate the American Indian population?
Did you know that Hitler modeled the Jewish concentration camps after the American practice of concentrating American Indians onto a reservation and introducing disease by gifting Tribes with smallpox infected blankets?
Each of these experiences of genocide at the hands of the American government over the generations explains what is called historical and intergenerational trauma. This explains in large part why tribal governments are sometimes openly hostile towards their own people. It also explains why American Indians have the worst of the worst statistical outcomes on every dimension. This includes the lowest high school graduation rate, the highest rates of suicide, the highest rates of drug and alcohol addiction, the highest rates of unemployment.
Whitewashing our history and these facts is intended to suggest there is something inferior about American Indians. That we are intellectually inferior to other races. Early scholars in anthropology wrote about our ancestors as if they were less than human and not civilized. We didn’t even have the right to vote until 1924. We were the last of Americans to be granted this right. Our religious practices were illegal until 1978. Our children were stolen from our families until the Indian Child Welfare Act was passed in 1978. Even today—in certain states and jurisdictions—Indian children are still stolen from their families.
None of this is intended to blame anyone who is alive today. But we all have a duty to understand the facts, our history, and how this impacts us today. One important reason is so that we don’t repeat history. Immigrant children locked in cages and disconnected from their parents is the same as the Indian boarding school experience. The atrocity of separating a child from their family is inexcusable and unforgivable. No matter who is president or who locked up these children, it is really no different than the Indian boarding school experience. Those who argue cancel culture would have you believe this is no big deal. Again, if we don’t know our own history, we are doomed to repeat it.
So while I am grateful that the world is becoming “woke” to the experience of Indian children being slaughtered, beaten to death, or driven to suicide based on a broken heart at these boarding schools, we have known this for some time but we’re just unwilling to look more closely.
I appreciate Secretary Deb Haaland’s commitment to go back and examine these boarding schools to get an account of how many Indian children were murdered at the hands of the American government. It is my hope that this will lead to repatriation of the remains of these children back to the respective families and tribes.
Finally, the concept of critical race theory is not about blaming anyone. It’s about understanding the truth and looking for explanations for why certain populations have the worst of the worst statistical outcomes.
As documented in the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Broken Promises report, American Indians have the worst of the worst statistical outcomes.