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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

A Reflection on My Journey for Truth

By Sandy Palinski, Director, Children’s Services, Social & Community Services, Halton Region

I was 40 years-old when I first learned about Residential Schools. I remember the moment clearly. I was reading a draft learning document intended to support staff with an understanding of Indigenous people in Canada. I remember feeling disbelief and not understanding. The next day I approached the author of the document and asked if these events had really happened. Yes, I did that…it just didn’t seem possible to me.  The author assured me that the events had occurred and offered me the contact name of an Indigenous staff member who could verify the accuracy and give me another perspective on the document. I called. The events were verified and the accuracy of the document was confirmed. I just sat there at my desk – shocked, appalled, and confused.

I later attended an all-day learning program led by a local Indigenous woman who shared our horrific history in Canada. I learned more about the Sixties Scoop, the assimilation and abuse of Indigenous children in Residential Schools across Canada, and the inhuman treatment of people in Indian hospitals. I’m not even sure then if the gravity of our tragic history had sunk in for me.

It was later when I read a report outlining an Indigenous youth’s path to crime, drugs, and violence; and the story of grandparents and parents who couldn’t love, and who lived their own lives of drugs and abuse to get away from their memories of Residential Schools, that I really started to reflect on the impact of our history. That report, a personal account of a youth’s life, showed me how the various forms of abuse and neglect at Residential Schools have impacted Indigenous people, their children and grandchildren. It left me with a feeling of intense sadness, grief, and responsibility.

Throughout my career as I have worked with different Indigenous communities, I’ve learned much, and I keep learning. I had the privilege of supporting the designation of three Indigenous communities to set up children’s aid societies, and it was a powerful and moving experience to see them take back authority to care for their children.  As I write this, I know it is contentious work, but it is important to restore child welfare authority to Indigenous peoples. As part of that work, I remember working with one community who asked a colleague and me to meet with their Band Council. We were discussing their model of service and looking for them to make changes.  A member of the Band Council clearly reminded me that if we forced this community to change their model, we were repeating the ways of colonization. That comment took the wind out of me. I had to catch my breath. I remember sitting by the lake reflecting on my actions and our interactions. I came back to the table and re-engaged with them in a new relationship, respecting them as a nation with the ability to make their own decisions aligned with their culture and beliefs. Their model of service remained unchanged. Instead, I changed the way we did business.

Picture of rocky lake shoreline
Photo credit: Angela Bellegarde

I have had the privilege of working with various Indigenous people who have shared with me teachings of their cultures, have shown me generosity, kindness, and love. I have learned from Elders who have taught me about the Seven Grandfather Teachings and the four Traditional Medicines. I marvel at their generosity in sharing their teachings with me, given our history. I have so much appreciation for the calm wisdom Elders bring and place these learning opportunities as my highest learning experiences. I have tried to bring these teachings into my own life.

As I reflect on the recent discovery of the remains of 215 children in unmarked graves at the former Kamloops Residential School, I am saddened by the loss and send my deepest sympathy to the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc Nation. I am further saddened by the thought of more children across our nation who need to be found and mourned.  I am reminded of the importance of continuing my learning and supporting others to learn; of my responsibility to do things differently; and of being an ally. National Indigenous History Month provides us with an opportunity to honour the history, heritage, and diversity of Indigenous people in Canada, but our responsibilities to learn the Truth and engage in meaningful Reconciliation are ongoing.  We all have a role.

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!