Fernie Marty believes himself to be a strong guy, but recent news has brought back personal and emotional memories for him.
Leaders of Indigenous communities in Canada have disclosed the sites of unmarked graves uncovered using geophysical radar equipment three times since May.
The gravesites, located in British Columbia and Saskatchewan, are close to what were previously church-run boarding schools used as part of a forced ‘assimilation program.’
The ABC reports that the bodies, which number in the thousands, are most likely those of Indigenous children removed from their homes to enter the schools. According to state documents and oral testimonies, they were subjected to regular sexual, physical, and emotional abuse and violence.
The discovery of the burials has given structure and detail to Canada’s past, assuaging some residual doubt about the treatment of Indigenous peoples.
However, for Canadians, learning such heinous realities may be distressing, even personal.
Mr. Marty never went to one of the boarding schools. Still, he was born into the Catholic religion and attended Catholic schools in the 1960s due to his own families’ integration.
“The nuns treated all of us who were Indigenous the same way. We were stopped from speaking our language. Our hair was washed with coal oil because they figured we all had bugs. Their favourite word for us was ‘savages,'” he explained.
I think everyone [who is Indigenous] probably has a story like that. “But what’s important is that all across Canada, and across Indigenous nations, we can start healing.” Some indigenous Catholics are having doubts about the Church.
Mr. Marty’s backing in a place controlled by the same entity that formerly managed nearly three-quarters of the boarding schools—the Catholic Church—might be an indication of evolving attitudes.
Sacred Heart Church in downtown Edmonton caters to Indigenous Catholics by blending indigenous ceremonial into Catholic rites, and parishioners have been invited to speak out against the news in recent days.
“Most people go through this phase where they’ll say, ‘Father, I’m never going back to church again.’ That’s the pain element. It’s critically important for us to sit and listen and soak that all up out of respect,” Father Mark Blom remarked.
“You don’t minimise the feelings or rush to use words like ‘reconciliation’ too quickly.”
Since the graves were uncovered, the Catholic Church has made no public statements. However, Pope Francis has stated that he will meet with a delegation of Indigenous leaders in December.
With about 30% of Indigenous Canadians identifying as Catholic, Catholicism constitutes the biggest percentage of Canada’s religious Indigenous community.
According to Father Mark, several churches have been set on fire or vandalized in the aftermath of the announcement, including one in the same area as Sacred Heart Church.
Father Mark, who deems boarding schools an “evil system” in which the Catholic Church “should have never got involved in,” placed orange banners around his church to show the parish’s support for Indigenous peoples’ suffering, reports the ABC.
He’s been sleeping in the church basement, ready to engage in discussion with anyone who comes to vent their rage.
“The healing avenue starts when, no matter what feelings come up—anger, sadness, depression, rage, numbness, passivity—you meet them as fully as you can and give them space,” Father Mark explained.
Canada has traditionally been suspicious of accusations of abuse.
According to a 2015 study by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, more than 150,000 children attended boarding schools from the late 1800s through the 1990s.
Many of them died and were buried on-site has long been known in Indigenous communities, but those same people claim the government took too long to investigate.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established in 2007 as part of a settlement for a class-action lawsuit filed by boarding school survivors.
The Canadian government has paid out more than $3.2 billion CAD to almost 28,000 students who attended the institutions as a result of the deal.
Catholic organizations were supposed to raise cash for healing, but they fell well short of their goal. They’ve also refused to provide over papers and documents containing information on what happened at the schools.
The Indigenous groups have primarily been responsible for initiating inquiries into the location and magnitude of the gravesites.
Dr. Kisha Supernant, an archaeologist who has been assisting communities with their searches, says she has had “many, many, many” requests for aid since the first burial was discovered. Still, the investigations are expected to last for years.
Only a few teams have the expertise and sensitivity to utilize radar equipment to search, and the expense of operations for certain communities may be prohibitively high. The Canadian government has set aside $27.1 million CAD to assist in the search, prompting towns to scramble for a piece of the pie before it runs out.
“I hope that we keep this sense of urgency, but also that we don’t rush the process,” Dr. Supernant added.
“There are so many pieces to this, from working with the survivors to get a sense of the stories of where to look, going into the archive, ensuring that there’s cultural, spiritual and mental health support for everyone involved.”
What will happen next has yet to be announced by the communities that have discovered their gravesites. Some may exhume the remains, while others may leave the locations as memorials, according to Dr. Supernant.
It is unknown how many students perished at the schools.
Graves, in the end, may only go so far in providing communities with a comprehensive picture of the extent of the abuse.
According to Dr. Scott Hamilton of Lakehead University, there are around 130 boarding school sites still intact.
The children’s living conditions would have remained appalling until the 1950s, when a day-school model was implemented, meaning that any boarding school that existed before that period would almost certainly have unmarked graves.
However, it’s conceivable that some of the children were buried on top of existing gravesites in hospital cemeteries or other church or municipal cemeteries. They may have been sent home for burial in exceptional circumstances.
Based on a thorough study of records and interviews with 65,000 Indigenous Canadians, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 2015 report includes 4,100 names of children who have gone missing.
That figure, according to Dr. Hamilton, is a “gross underestimation.”
“We have no real reliable sense of just how many children died while in care in the schools.”
Given the public’s already-established mistrust of eyewitness evidence, the gravesites are “probably the best data we’re going to get.”
Dr. Supernant believes that although finding the truth is essential, it’s also crucial to avoid focusing on figures.
“Even if there’s one grave of a child that died at a school without their families knowing what happened to them—I feel like that itself is a tragedy. Every child who died in school is a tragedy.”
The Canadian government has been sluggish to respond.
On Canada Day, two monuments of British kings were toppled, a patriotic festival that many Indigenous peoples chose to skip this year. Another was tossed into the sea, this time of adventurer James Cook.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau joined a number of Indigenous leaders in condemning arson and vandalism, stating that it is not the way to achieve justice.
Mr Trudeau stated, “The destruction of houses of worship is abhorrent and must be stopped.”
“The destruction of places of worship is unacceptable and it must stop.”
It is appalling to see churches in Canada burned and vandalized. We all have work to do on the path to reconciliation, and these acts undermine the important discussions on how we move forward. It needs to stop. https://t.co/AzZNjNt8CE
— Erin O'Toole (@erinotoole) June 28, 2021
Mr. Trudeau has made efforts to ensure that Indigenous peoples’ opinions are heard at the highest levels of government. He chose the first Indigenous person as Canada’s next governor-general only last week.
Stephen Harper, then-Prime Minister, recognized the schools’ hidden goals as early as 2008:
“Two primary objectives of the residential schools system were to remove and isolate children from the influence of their homes, families, traditions and cultures, and to assimilate them into the dominant culture. These objectives were based on the assumption aboriginal cultures and spiritual beliefs were inferior and unequal.”
Despite this, just 14 of the 94 recommendations to action made in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report have been implemented.
The news from Canada is also prompting demands for action on a worldwide scale.
Protesters in the United Kingdom are urging politicians to acknowledge the role of British colonialism in causing harm to Canada’s Indigenous peoples.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American woman to occupy the position, has promised to start a domestic search for probable burial sites near boarding schools.
Some people who have a personal connection to the children turn inside for healing as the debate becomes louder.
Elmer Waniyandy, a parishioner of Sacred Heart Church, relies on his Catholic beliefs for guidance rather than trying to rethink his identity.
“I would have to forgive,” he said of the school officials who are suspected of burying the kids.
“And I would have to ask for forgiveness for them as well.” Because I am not in a position to pass judgment on others. “Nobody in this world is perfect.”
Mr. Waniyandy did not attend boarding school, although several of his siblings did. They were hesitant to discuss their childhood experiences.
“I imagine it hurt my sisters and my brothers that did go, but that they used their courage. He stated, “They lived a good life.”
As the hunt for the missing students continues in other schools, he hopes that the country may show the same fortitude in learning from its mistakes and moving forward. “Help each other, pray with each other,” he said. “Come together as one people no matter what.”