Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of May 15, 2006
Schools not totally to blame
Plight of Aboriginal people stemmed from a multitude of situations, says archbishop
"In Canada, it is no more possible to question this narrative (residential schools) than it is to question the Holocaust."
Archbishop James Weisgerber
By DEBORAH GYAPONG
Canadian Catholic News
Residential schools are not to blame for all the ills suffered by Canada's Aboriginal peoples, says Winnipeg Archbishop James Weisgerber.
Relations with Aboriginal people are not going to be solved until we see the issue in its complexity, he told the Canadian Church Press convention May 4.
Speaking as an individual and not on behalf of the archdiocese or the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, Weisgerber questioned the narrative that has developed over the last 16 years that paints all residential schools as places of degradation and humiliation.
The narrative suggests all the social problems of the Aboriginal people date back to residential schools where children were routinely sexually and physically abused, while being Christianized and deprived of their language.
"In Canada, it is no more possible to question this narrative than it is to question the Holocaust," he said.
Residential schools began out of necessity once the buffalo were gone and the fur trade collapsed, he said.
Native people were in "dire straits" and many were starving. Missionaries and Aboriginal leaders recognized education was necessary for them to survive.
"It was all begun in good faith," he said.
Weisgerber admitted the Church had its cultural biases and did many things that would never be done today, but asked whether it was fair to judge the past with the acquired knowledge of the present.
The schools did good work as well.
The Sisters of Providence, for example, were asked to build a school in northern Alberta because there were so many orphans.
"There were always more requests than spaces available. This is all part of the narrative."
Weisgerber described the history of residential schools as a "continual example" of the government coming in and "imposing their agenda on us" without giving enough money to help.
The government decided the schools, which were founded by churches, could be made into "instruments of civilization" and "they decided to call the shots and create the agenda," he said.
Weisgerber said the government made attendance at the schools compulsory, leading to the "terrible stories of kids getting rounded up" by the clergy and by the RCMP.
He said the isolated nature of some of these schools made it possible for sadistic individuals to do a lot of damage, but they were not the norm.
Weisgerber said the other casualties are the hundreds of nuns who spent their whole lives working in the schools.
Nuns in poverty
Now they are old, he said, and will have to live in increased poverty because of a recent settlement requiring Catholic entities to contribute to a compensation package.
Because of the prevailing narrative, they are living in shame and that's a very difficult way to end one's life, he said.
Weisgerber praised the Return to Spirit program created by an Aboriginal psychologist that allows former residential school students and staff to come together to tell their stories and work towards healing and reconciliation.
"It has been amazingly successful and it is all about what we specialize in and that is stories."
The Return to Spirit program will be one of the in-kind services the 41 Catholic entities involved in running residential schools can offer as part of the compensation required by a recent comprehensive legal settlement.