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The Power of an Apology

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

Cedar roots by Angela Bellegarde - cropped

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

Additional Resources:
Read Pope Francis’s full remarks, apology for abuses by some Catholic Church members in residential schools | CBC News
Indigenous Literacy Resources
National Indigenous History Month
The Doctrine of Discovery, 1493 | Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History
Pope John Paul II Dies
Jim SINCLAIR Obituary

National Indigenous History Month: Reminiscence and Revelation of a Non-Indigenous Person

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

Map

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

Cute teenage girl, crouching on river bank, dreamily lets a water deroplet fall from her finger

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

Additional Resources:

The National Residential School Crisis Line 1-866-925-4419
OKN Indigenous Reconciliation
Indigenous Literacy Resources
Principles of Truth and Reconciliation

Truth is Dead

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.

Image of wild flower in front of sunset

Building Bridges

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.

What will you do to make sure the Truth is not dead? Perhaps protesting efforts in Canada need to be about Indigenous Truth.  I say to you all, “The time is now. Learn the Truth about Indigenous people in Canada.”

For further reading:
How radar technology is used to discover unmarked graves at former residential schools | CBC News
Residential schools: Sask. First Nation discovers 54 possible unmarked graves during radar search | CTV News

Do you know why June is special at Our Kids Network?

It is National Indigenous History Month and We are Celebrating!

By Angela Bellegarde, Our Kids Network Indigenous Lead

June is one of the best months of the year! Children and youth look forward to summer and celebrate the end of school. Families look forward to vacations and engaging in outdoor pursuits. This year, Canadians are faced with an entirely new way of spending the summer months, so how about taking the opportunity to discover and learn more about the Indigenous people of Canada?

Three adolescent children of Indigenous heritage.

So where do you start?

Canada.ca
The Government of Canada website National Indigenous History Month section is a good place to begin your journey. Make your first stop at the Indigenous History-Makers section and meet Métis author, Cherie Dimaline, Jesse Cockney, an Olympic Inuvialuk cross-country skier, and Dr. Nadine Caron, a member of the Sagamok Anishnawbek First Nation and Canada’s first female First Nations general surgeon…and many more. These amazing individuals are just a few of the innumerable Indigenous people making Canada and the world a better, more interesting and more creative place to live.

ourkidsnetwork.ca
The Our Kids Network website Indigenous Reconciliation section is another great place to look for resources. Want to do a territorial announcement at your next meeting or event? We have a whole section to assist you. (Scroll to the bottom of the page.)

This just the beginning, friends!

In the coming weeks, Our Kids Network will be engaged in many activities to help you learn more about our Indigenous Reconciliation Initiative.

Check your inbox frequently for new messages. Follow us on Twitter @OurKidsNetwork. If you haven’t already, subscribe to our blog to learn about the exciting ways Our Kids Network is celebrating National Indigenous History month!