Indigenous people make up about 35 per cent of the Catholic population in the Diocese of St. Paul, which covers the northeastern corner of Alberta. Of the 40 communities served by the diocese, 10 are First Nations and four are Métis settlements.
In this three-part series, we meet some of these Indigenous Catholics and learn about both the blessings and the challenges they experience in their relationships with the Church.
Shirley Pruden still walks the halls of the residential school she attended as a teenager. Even now, more than 50 years later, the memories of her time there echo within its walls and are never far from her mind.
Whenever Pruden offers guided tours to guests or prospective students at the Blue Quills First Nations College, just outside the northeastern Alberta town of St. Paul, she makes sure to tell them about her own experiences. The Goodfish Lake resident attended the school from 1965 to 1967, when it was still a residential school operated by Oblate priests and Grey Nuns. Today the college is run by the Blue Quills Native Education Council.
For Pruden, her three years at Blue Quills are not filled with memories of abuse and trauma. When she sees the familiar sights of its hallways, classrooms and schoolyard, she looks back fondly on her time in the residential system.
“I always felt welcome there; I never saw any abuse,” she said. “We went on hikes. We went on picnics. We could watch TV. We had a skating rink in the winter. If it wasn’t for Blue Quills, there’s many friends I would not have today.
“I can become a loner in saying there were positive things in our residential schools, but I know I’m not making up these stories.”
Blue Quills was one of more than 80 Indian residential schools that operated across Canada. It was the only one in the St. Paul Diocese, and one of the 44 run by Catholic clergy and religious sisters.
Canada’s residential school system began in the early 1820s. The schools were a partnership between the Canadian government and various Christian churches, under the directive to educate Indigenous youth into a Christian and westernized culture.
In June 2008, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada was struck to investigate the history and impact the residential school system had on First Nations people.
Gary Gagnon, cultural coordinator in Indigenous Learning Services at Edmonton Catholic Schools, has spoken with people across Western and Northern Canada on their experiences in the schools. He’s heard mixed accounts.
“I’ve heard both sides. Stories have been passed down that are horrific, and some stories have been very positive. Neither of these should be forgotten,” said Gagnon.
“But for every positive experience with the residential schools, there’s a negative one. I’ve heard from people who stayed in residential schools right up until their Grade 12 graduation and went on to achieve great things, and I’ve heard stories from people who experienced a lot of abuse.”
More than 150,000 Indigenous students attended Canada’s residential school system. The federal government began phasing out the schools in 1970, and the Anglican-operated Gordon Indian School in Punnichy, Sask., was the final one to close, in 1996.
Twenty-five schools operated in Alberta. The St. Mary’s Mission Boarding School in Cardston, which was run by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate and the Sisters of Charity, was the final residential school in the province. The religious staff left the school in 1975.
The separation of children from their families and the suppression of native languages and culture are the roots of the system’s damaging legacy, says Gagnon.
“The one area where they really failed is with the acceptance of language,” he said. “If they were just to say, ‘You can keep your language and you can keep your hair long, we just want to share our God with you,’ then we wouldn’t be in the mess we are today.
“It was the imposing of it — that was the most hurtful factor. We had our sacred ceremonies and our own identity that predated our contact with Christianity, and the openness to that should have been there.”
Alan Badger, an elder at the Kehewin Cree Nation, recognizes the abuses suffered by his people through the residential system, but he has not let that history destroy his own faith in God. He points to Scripture, noting that the Pharisees illustrated how people who claim to know God can still be corrupted.
For him, the abuses and mistakes of individuals within the Church do not take away from the truth of Christianity.
“I still have my faith because I learned to be a more realistic guy,” Badger said. “In the Bible, it teaches you to distinguish between two groups of people – the true believers and the Pharisees. In my later years I came to realize that some of these people were not the true believers, they were more like the Pharisees.
“What was done to us was not for the good of the Native people and it was not for the good of the Church.”
In recent years, Gagnon has seen an attitude of reconciliation and forgiveness rising among many people — even those who faced the most difficult abuses first-hand.
“Many conversions have happened,” said Gagnon. “Someone once said to me, ‘For the longest time I blamed the Church and I refused to go, because of the sexual abuse and the physical abuse I suffered at the hands of the priest. But when I looked back one day, I realized I was blaming the wrong thing. I shouldn’t have been blaming the Church, I should have been blaming the perpetrator.’”
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report, released July 2015, detailed harrowing accounts of abuse. The report listed the deaths of 3,200 children and more than 31,000 sexual assault cases in the schools. It concluded that the removal of children from their own communities and cultures amounted to cultural genocide.
That dark history creates challenges for Allison Badger, who hopes to grow the Catholic community in Kehewin.
“The residential schools are definitely one of the barriers. With Truth and Reconciliation a lot of our younger generation are learning more and more, and they see no other side to the Church,” she said.
“It’s hard to get them to understand that it wasn’t God and it wasn’t Jesus that did this. It was people, and people have to be accountable for their own actions. You can’t blame the whole for something only certain people did.
“Those individuals that did wrong to us are going to have to answer to God. But we can’t hold onto that anger.”
When Allison speaks with her friends about the issue, she does not go out of her way to force the faith on them. It’s important to empathize and understand that for many people, the schools brought great pain and trauma, she said.
“Ultimately, it was something that was forced on our people,” Badger explained. “So I don’t say, ‘You should go to church.’ I just tell my friends that this is what we do, and if they are interested they are welcome to join us.”
Her approach appears to have helped in Kehewin’s Our Lady of Mercy Parish, where attendance at Mass has been slowly growing in recent years.
“There has been so much hurt in this regard, but I see the healing is now in the growing process,” said Rev. Jhack Diaz, the pastor of Our Lady of Mercy. “The faith is growing little by little. In Kehewin there is an increase not only in quantity of people, but in the quality of the faith too.”
In the Métis community of Elizabeth Settlement, 70 kilometres east of Kehewin, Phyllis Collins was continually told by her late mother-in-law, Rose Collins, about her experiences in the residential school system. The schools bring painful memories to many, but for Rose Collins it was where she first knew Jesus. That story has remained with Phyllis ever since.
“Once a nun had told my mother-in-law to clean the chapel, and she was given some water and a rag to wash the floor,” she explained.
“The Stations of the Cross were inscribed along the walls, and it just so happened that the way she started cleaning was from the beginning of His walk and ended at the crucifixion. By the time she got through looking at these pictures, she started to cry. When the sister came in and asked what was going on, she looked up, wiped at her tears and said, ‘Why did they hang this man?’ So the sister sat her down and explained to her all about the life of Jesus.
“So in the residential schools, there was a lot of bad, hurting things, but good things too.”
Gagnon says Grandin College in Fort Smith stands out as a residential school honoured by northern Indigenous communities. Many community and political leaders in the Northwest Territories, including Premier Bob McLeod and former premiers Stephen Kakwi and Jim Antoine, graduated from Grandin College and have spoken fondly of the school.
The positive legacy of Grandin College is largely owed to the generosity and kindness of its priests, such as founding director Rev. Jean Pochat-Cotilloux, said Gagnon.
In the history of Catholic-Indigenous relations, Gagnon sees the role of individual clergy as a big factor in how communities view the Church.
“There are stories of priests, especially among the Oblates community, that were strong missionaries who really ingrained themselves into the Indigenous way of life,” he said. “They had bestowed upon them a lot of sacred things by the Indigenous people because they were recognized as holy men. I’ve heard stories of priests who have earned the sacred pipe, or have been granted a sacred headdress by Indigenous people.
“These missionaries were exceptionally successfully because they opened up. They came not wanting to change people, but to accept them and to bring the Word of God to them. Those who did that had great success and were well-loved.”
In his own time ministering to First Nations people, Rev. Manoj Mannakathu has seen mixed attitudes on the residential schools issue. Better known as ‘Father Phillip,’ the priest has been pastor to the Cree communities of Saddle Lake and Goodfish Lake since 2014.
In these parishes, there are people young and old who have left the Church because of the historic abuses. Some of the church elders, like Pruden, attended a school but did not have bad experiences, and others who had bad experiences now want to reconcile and be active in the Church.
Father Phillip feels the best approach to resolving the challenges created by this controversial history is through forgiveness and a renewed attitude to Church life. Above all, clergy and laity should come together not to dwell on the past, but hope for a better future.
“I cannot blame them or blame the Church. Usually what I say to them is that the past is the past, so let us start a new beginning. Let us grow in the faith and let us walk together today,” he said.
With changes in his parishes ̶ such as introducing the Cree language into liturgy and actively promoting the Sacrament of Marriage to many of the families at Mass — Father Phillip’s approach is bearing fruit. The priest also makes himself available to parishioners at all times, whenever they need spiritual direction, confession or other help.
In recent years there have been various efforts in Alberta toward reconciliation, including public apologies from the Oblates and the Alberta-NWT Bishops, reconciliation walks, educational seminars, and the incorporation of Indigenous customs and language into the curriculum at Catholic schools.
Newman Theological College in Edmonton is developing new credit course and non-credit seminar initiatives specifically related to ministry with Indigenous people, and the college continues to sponsor the Directions in Aboriginal Ministry summer program in partnership with the Building Bridges program of the Western Bishops.
“With reconciliation, the school level is really where it all starts,” said Shirley Mykituk, manager with Edmonton Catholic Schools’ Indigenous Learning Services.
Mykituk also works with seminarians in Edmonton’s St. Joseph Seminary when they are assigned to Indigenous parishes.
“We have five schools in the Catholic district dedicated to Cree language programs, and that speaks volumes. To help our youth grow in the faith, we have to make it applicable for them. The students should be able to see themselves in the programming, especially in the Catholic schools because we are encouraging that relationship on the spiritual level.”