By Angela Bellegarde, OKN’s Manager of Indigenous Strategy
Angela reflects on the Pope’s recent apology for the Catholic’s Church role in Canada’s Residential School System.
It was a difficult week watching the news coverage of Indigenous representatives meeting with Pope Francis in Rome in March 2022. I looked at Chief Mary Ann Day-Walker, long-term chief at Okanese First Nation located down the road from my First Nation and wondered what she must have been feeling. I saw Chief Phil Fontaine looking like he was shouldering a huge weight. I am old enough to remember the first time Chief Fontaine travelled to meet the Pope. In fact, that week I thought a lot about our Indigenous leaders who have met previously with a sitting Pope. The outstanding Metis Leader, the late Jim Sinclair, met with Pope John Paul II at least four times. Was this time going to be different? If our leaders had hope, acted with dignity, and were in Rome to honour all Residential School Survivors, I must have hope too. We are still here.
Conflicted About my Spirituality, I Took Action
Photo credit Angela Bellegarde
Three generations of my family went to a “Catholic” Residential School. Their traditional spiritual teachings and practices were replaced intentionally by the Catholic nuns and priests who ran the Residential School. I was raised Catholic and until fairly recently experienced a great deal of cognitive dissonance about my spirituality. I now engage in spiritual practices of the Plains Cree people and respect the teachings of all religions. I smudge with traditional medicines, respect the teaching of the elders, and attend sweats when I can. I continue to learn every day the meaning of wisdom, love, respect, courage, honesty, humility, and truth. These are what my Catholic-school-attending children experience in my home. My heart soared when my daughter was confirmed in the Indigenous Saint Kateri Tekawitha’s name. My son wore his traditional ribbon shirt to the mass. The dissonance continues but we are still here, and we have never left.
Adding to the complexity of my feelings is the fact that I had a non-Indigenous uncle who was an Oblate priest. I never really thought of him as a priest though. He dressed like the rest of us, drank beer on a cold day, and had strong opinions about the Bishop and the powers that be in Rome. Father Paulo worked in community development in the jungles of Brazil. We referred to him as “my uncle the priest in Brazil,” but I learned from Brazilian expats that he was also known as the “rebel priest”. He worked tirelessly to organize Indigenous farmers to protest the appropriation of land by the Brazilian government for foreign multi-nationals to develop. This is somewhat ironic, given that it has taken over 25 years for my First Nation to settle our land claim with the Canadian government. We are still here; we have never left.
One Step in the Journey toward Indigenous Truth
The morning of the apology, I watched Chief Phil Fontaine hold a press conference in St. Peter’s Square. I couldn’t help but think that three generations of my family have visited that square, my grandmother to see my uncle ordained and me as a tourist many years later. In fact, I was lucky enough to see Pope John Paul II make a rare appearance at his balcony. Six days later, on April 2nd, 2005, he passed away. Prior to my departure from Italy, I went back to St. Peter’s Square for evening prayers, where Pope John Paul II body laid. A historical moment to be sure.
April 1 was another historical day. The day of the Pope’s apology was one of surrealness and joy. I wanted the apology to happen for the Residential School survivors, and our Indigenous leaders who fought so hard for it. I was relieved to see Chief Fontaine respond to questions with a levity I hadn’t seen all week. In fact, I teared up with emotion thinking about the power that the apology holds for Indigenous people. The Pope’s apology is an important step in healing and redressing the wrongs of the past. It recognizes the “Truth” that we must all learn and face as Canadians; only then will meaningful Reconciliation occur in this country. It is an apology that recognizes that we were always here, we never left, and we will not leave.
Hiy Hiy, Angela.
If you are a Survivor and need emotional support, a national crisis line is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week:
Residential School Survivor Support Line: 1-866-925-4419
By Janice Robinson, Halton Children’s Aid Society executive director
My journey of Truth is an attempt to reconcile what I thought was the truth about a place I lived in when I was young, with what I later learned when Indigenous Peoples, events, communities, and most especially children entered my life.
I am humbled to share my reckoning of what I thought was Truth, and to plot my journey backward, recasting memories, overlaying them with new knowledge, and reforming them with Truth. I am humbled to declare how my new way of seeing old memories, inspires my leadership in a child welfare agency today.
My First Learnings about Indigenous Peoples
I moved to Brantford, Ontario when I was 5 years old. Brantford is named after Chief Joseph Brant, who I was taught, forded the Grand River to claim the territory granted to him by the British government in payment for his bravery in the American Revolution. There is a statue of him in the town square in Brantford that I looked at many times as a child.
I was taught by my parents that the town of Brantford is on land that was owned by the Six Nations Indigenous Peoples, and that we took it from them. The Six Nations people lived on a reserve. My home was on a street, that if followed south would lead eventually to the Six Nations reserve and the town on that reserve, Ohsweken. I was taught that we weren’t allowed to go there.
I also lived about a fifteen-minute walk from an abandoned school on large grounds; an empty and imposing building where kids used to go to school. I did not know who the children were or why they stopped going there.
Finally, I was taught that a small, white church on a road near my house called the Mohawk Chapel was built by Indigenous Peoples, but they didn’t go to that church anymore. Once, the Queen went there and there was a plaque outside the church commemorating that event.
This is the sum of what I knew about my community and its Indigenous roots until I was 13 years old. In high school I took Canadian and American history but learned very, very little about the original peoples of North America. We mostly learned about the ‘settlers’ and ‘explorers’ who came from far and claimed this land.
What I did learn was that every day, buses would arrive carrying kids from the Six Nations reserve to our high school. The bus arrived on time in the mornings but picked up Six Nations children early every day, so they had to line up at 2:30 pm in the hallway while school was still in session. Everyone knew which kids lived on the reserve. There was no school on Six Nations and ours was the closest high school. Those kids stayed together. Some joined team sports but couldn’t go to tournaments because of the bus schedule.
My Indigenous Understanding Began Later in Life
I share this to tell you that I live in a community that is rich in Indigenous history, culture, contribution, and foundation. I never appreciated any of those things until well after I graduated from university and went to work at the Children’s Aid Society of Brant. There I met Indigenous social workers and community leaders from both the Six Nations and the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nations. I received an education from each of them, not just through watching and listening, but through the stories they told about the origin of their communities and their history, as taught to them through generations of storytelling.
One social worker I remember most vividly had a sign on her office wall. I remember that sign to this day though not the exact wording: We honour and protect all of our people, some are dead, and some are living, but most are not yet born. To me, this phrase represents the resiliency of Indigenous Peoples.
I finally learned that the big abandoned school I lived near when I was a kid was the “Mohawk Institute” or “The Mush Hole”, one of the oldest Residential Schools in Canada which was still operating when I walked past it in 1968. In fact, it didn’t close until 1970. There were children in that school when I played nearby. I never saw them. This haunts me.
Acknowledging the Role of Child Welfare System in Indigenous Inequity
I have worked in child welfare for 34 years now. Only recently has the Ontario child welfare system came to reckon with its role in the perpetuation of genocidal policies and forced assimilation of the Residential School System. I participate in this reckoning, through my own journey of Truth seeking. I use whatever influence I have, to make space for the Truth to be told by and for Indigenous Peoples. I hold deep respect for this process, and I hope to make all the changes within my power toward this Truth and toward Reconciliation.
I acknowledge that I am one small ripple on an endless surface of complacency; however, I will never stop. Even when I retire from my position, I will share what I know and how I know it with whomever will listen.
In May, I received a request from the Chiefs of First Nations in Ontario for information, data, and evidence of child welfare intervention in the lives of children, youth, and families of their communities. It contained an extensive and comprehensive set of questions and information requests from Ontario’s children’s aid societies.
The response to their request will require scrutiny of our practices at an organizational level and at the personal level. It will require case review and file crawls. It will disclose the way in which our interaction with First Nations children and youth was characterized by our biases towards First Nations families, communities, and history.
Halton Children’s Aid Society will respond fully with this request. This compels us to both seek and provide the Truth so we can cross the bridge toward Reconciliation.
If you are a Survivor and need emotional support, a national crisis line is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week:
Residential School Survivor Support Line: 1-866-925-4419
By Angela Bellegarde, Our Kids Network Indigenous Lead
Once again, Canada and the world are witness to yet another First Nation’s learning of the remains of friends and relatives, in what is believed to be 54 unmarked graves on the grounds of former Residential School sites. When viewing the press conference regarding the findings, the pain this information causes the band members of Keeseekoose First Nation is crippling to watch.
Was this just another news story to the ones watching? Are people becoming desensitized to news of unmarked graves? Do many persons know how many bodies have been found to date? Is it just a number to some? They aren’t just numbers to me, nor to my family and friends. They represent loved ones. They represent the Truth.
We are the First People
The Truth. That concept that we have been tossing around for almost six years now. What do people know about the Truth of Indigenous Peoples in Canada? I didn’t use the phrase “Canada’s Indigenous people”. We are not Canada’s wards. We are the First Peoples of what is now known as Canada. Everyone needs to understand because that is the Truth.
The Truth is that those bodies found are not just blips on seismic readings. The black and white photos you see on the news and in books may be strangers to many, but they are my people, my relatives. When I look at those faces, I am looking for my dad, my aunts and uncles, my family. That is the Truth. My truth, Canada’s truth, and now your truth. Finally, we are beginning to be believed.
I carry some guilt about the Truth. I didn’t always believe my father’s stories about going to Lebret Indian Residential School. For the most part, him and my relatives did not speak of the atrocities. It wasn’t until I took my first Native Studies course in university that I made the connection with his Truth and the Truth I was being taught about in a formal academic institution. I made some apologies about not believing his Truth. I paid greater attention to those stories after that.
Today, I work to bridge the gap between non-Indigenous people and Indigenous people with the Truth. I know my privilege in this world. It is that I know something about the Truth of being Indigenous in Canada. I willingly share that privilege with you so that together we can make a better Canada together. I willingly face micro-aggressions, systemic racism, and continually ask to be called to the table with decision makers to make a difference for Indigenous people. Some days are tougher than others. Some days I am the buoy for my more “woke” non-Indigenous colleagues who try to make a difference for Indigenous people and fight systemic racism. Today was that day. But that gift of love, and respect was reciprocated. They were my buoy as well. I am grateful.
I am heartened that the unmarked graves are bringing the Truth to light. For one more day, I can work to make sure the Truth does not die with those who have gone before me.
By Angela Bellegarde, Our Kids Network Indigenous lead
This year marks the 30th anniversary of Canada signing the United Nations (UN) Convention of the Rights of the Child, established in 1989. In fact, the UN’s Declaration of the Rights of the Child was developed 30 years before that in 1959. As chosen by Children First Canada, this year’s theme is “8 Million Strong” which represents the number of children in Canada. Especially poignant and important this year, is that the day will also serve to amplify the unique concerns of Indigenous children in Canada.
What are the Rights of the Child?
Children, like all humans, have rights that are specific to them. Child rights fall into four specific categories: Survival, Development, Participation, and Protection. Many Canadians know that having access to housing, adequate food and clean drinking water, an education, and the ability to speak their minds is not an issue for children in Canada. Thankfully, for most children these essential aspects of life are not a concern because we live in one of the best countries in the world.
However, as Canadians, we also know that there are still many children who face extreme inequities and live in adverse conditions. Many Indigenous children and families do not have access to clean water, or adequate education, shelter, and food security.
Intergenerational Trauma Continues to Impact Indigenous Children and Youth
I had to have a difficult conversation with my children and mom recently. In a meeting I had attended, an Elder mentioned that ground penetrating radar was being used at the former Mohawk Residential School in Brantford. You might know it as the Woodland Cultural Centre. That same day I learned that a similar search was underway at Lebret Residential School, in Saskatchewan, where three generations of my family lived as children.
I felt I needed to prepare my family for the terrible news that is coming. It was most difficult to speak with my teenage son about this. School is safe place for him. He is a high achiever who is proud to identify as Indigenous. It is very hard to have a conversation about the rights of children in Canada when we know the Truth about the violent and genocidal treatment of Indigenous children who attended Residential Schools.
What can You Do?
Learn more, do more, advocate more. Seems a bit trite but it really does sum it up. The links below will get you started. Take some time to go through them and think about how you can help promote the rights of Indigenous children on National Child Day in Canada. Be creative. Look for ways to advocate and educate so all Canada’s children have their rights realized. #everychildmatters.
Autumn Peltier, Chief Water Commissioner for Anishinabek Nation speaks to the fact that the right to clean drinking water is not fulfilled in her community in northern Ontario.
By Siobhan Laverdiere, former Halton Youth Initiative Coordinator
“It’s often said before there can be Reconciliation, there must be Truth. I would challenge that, even before Truth, there must be Trust.”
Robyn Ward, Director of People Operations, Animikii
As a former Halton Youth Initiative (HYI) coordinator, this statement came to mind back in June 2020 when I was thinking about how to approach the topic of Indigenous Truth and Reconciliation with some of our youth volunteers. They had expressed keen interest in knowing more about Truth and Reconciliation and were considering reaching out to the Indigenous community.
Reflecting on Truth, Honesty, Love, Humility, Respect, Wisdom, and Bravery: Pathways to Trust
Before we began our journey, the Community Builders team took some time to think about building trust and seeking the Truth. Their reflections were framed by the Grandfather Teachings of the Anishinaabe People; Truth, Honesty, Love, Humility, Respect, Wisdom, and Bravery.
Truth and Honesty
“To me, Truth means to fully understand and honour what happened in the past, and not avoid it just because those actions weren’t caused firsthand by you. I think Reconciliation means to build the trust again, and make what was wrong right.” Senoli Jayaratna
“How would I feel if I were forcefully relocated to a different area? How would I feel if one of my family members went missing and no one responded or made an effort to find them? I deeply empathize with these questions since we all have our family whom we love and would go crazy if they are missing. And it would be worse if my government refused to provide me with any help because of my color and my nation.” Melissa Ban
“For hundreds of years, Indigenous Peoples have been disrespected and discriminated against by settlers. Their culture and people suffered, from many languages being lost and thousands of lives being taken away. The terrible actions must be discussed, the truth must be discussed. But, trust must be built first, since racism and discrimination are still a prominent issue of today. I think it’s expected for a community to not trust easily after facing centuries of mistreatment, and that is why this trust should be rebuilt first.” Ekaterina Stepenski
“I think we should first start by trying to learn and understand to the greatest extent the life of Indigenous people in the past and present. I also think that while we are doing so, we should attempt to build connections between us and our Indigenous allies, to establish the trust that was the focus of the article by Robyn Ward. Reconciliation means making up for the mistakes that we have made, so once we have learned more about the perspectives of some Indigenous people, we can find out what more we can do to help the Indigenous community.” Senoli Jayaratna
(On the knowledge and wisdom she learned from Robyn Ward’s article) “I found the analogy about the vault aspect of trust very interesting. Referring to it as a trust bank account helps to really understand the concept of withdrawals and deposits in terms of trust (efforts that violate or build/strengthen trust). Keeping this in mind will help us to be better allies who actively make efforts towards making deposits through being kind, good listeners, respecting boundaries, respecting decisions (especially when someone does not want to share), and more. It also can help us to understand the impacts of our mistakes and the toll they take.” Romina Mirsaeidghazi
“I was born and raised in a country where freedom of expression was limited and the government acts more as a dictatorship rather than a democracy. I know that if my people suffer in the same way that Indigenous peoples in Canada and North America have, I would want others to bravely advocate and support my people too. This relates back to “treating others the way we want to be treated”. As someone who is working on becoming a good ally, I feel as though I have an obligation to educate myself and others if I get a chance in order to stand for justice. I would want the same if this was me who was suffering.” Romina Mirsaeidghazi
Our aim was to show our commitment to the Truth in order to build future Trust. What better way to do this than by approaching this learning with:
Humility: Admitting that we needed to learn more, and to listen to the stories of Indigenous People, especially those of Residential School Survivors Accountability: Taking it upon ourselves to find these stories and do our own research. Empathy: Taking the time to reflect on ways we can make connections between our own personal experiences and those of Survivors in order to build emotional links.
This is what we did…
After our preparatory learning and self-reflection, the HYI Community Builders virtual team felt confident to contact Angela Bellegarde, Our Kids Network Indigenous lead. This new relationship led to other connections within the Indigenous community.
The experience of taking the time to learn and reflect, engage with Indigenous leaders and teachers and then have the opportunity to express their emotions and knowledge in concrete ways was absolutely transformative for these passionate young people. You can hear the sadness, anger, reverence, and courage in their voices in the reflections above.
As a result, the Community Builders team put their learning and inspiration into action with a podcast series titled Halton Youth Share the Truth and a video Land Acknowledgement Resource for anyone who is called upon to acknowledge a Territory. These valuable community resources will remain available to help other youth and adults as on their journeys to seek Trust, Truth and Reconciliation.
Introduction by Beth Williams, Our Kids Network Communications Manager
On September 30th people across Canada will observe the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, the fulfilment of Call to Action #80 in the Final Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report, completed back in 2015. In Halton, plans are underway for Truth and Reconciliation walks, ceremonies, and other events for residents. Some of you will be continuing your journey of Reconciliation, while others will certainly be called to begin their journey through participation in these events. Many Canadians are hopeful that marking this important day each year to focus on the Truth will bring Indigenous and non-Indigenous people closer to Reconciliation.
In the following dual blogs, Our Kids Network member, Joanna Matthews and OKN Indigenous Lead, Angela Bellegarde, write about their own unique journeys to discover, learn, and share the Truth; and about their hopes and aspirations for National Day for Truth and Reconciliation in Halton and Canada.
A Personal and Professional Reflection from a Non-Indigenous Perspective
By Joanna Matthews, Vice President, Services, Reach Out Centre for Kids ROCK Co-chair, Our Kids Network Community Planning Table
I am a white European woman and use the pronouns she/her. As a small child, I immigrated to Canada from the colonizing country of England, which maintained a class system. My family on both sides were from the working-class. In the mid-60s, when my parents were given the opportunity to be sponsored by the British government to move to a commonwealth country, they chose Canada. I recognize this sponsorship as a privilege, but even so we were still poor working-class newcomers immersed in multi-ethnic neighbourhoods in Toronto. I experienced the exclusion, discrimination, prejudice, and struggles that most newcomers endure, and I worked to overcome these hardships.
Sharing Experiences as Part of a Reconciliation Journey
It was not a stretch for me as part of my career to take on the position of executive director at the Halton Multicultural Council (HMC) in 2002. I was aware of my white privilege, had a good understanding about systemic discrimination, and knew how I could use my platform to make changes. Reflecting on my years at HMC, I recognize that I learned through experiences that demonstrated my lack of understanding regarding the Truth about Indigenous people in Canada and their struggles. These learnings have stayed with me to this day and I am sharing some of them in this blog as part of my own Reconciliation journey.
Residential Schools Took Away Language, Culture, History, and Pride
My Mooshum (grandfather), Maglory Bellegarde, was the twelfth Indian enrolled at Lebret Indian Industrial School, later called Lebret Indian Residential School. All of his children and grandchildren attended this institution as well. My Aunts and Uncles would say that “it wasn’t so bad”, and I am sure it was better than many of the other Indian Residential Schools that we have come to learn about over this past summer. However, the very fact that they were forced to attend demonstrates the unjust and genocidal practices of the Canadian government of the time.