A view of graves at the Ermineskin cemetery in Maskwacis, Alberta, Canada A view of graves at the Ermineskin cemetery in Maskwacis, Alberta, Canada 

Canadian Jesuit : "Trauma is intergenerational" for Indigenous communities

The Vicar Provincial of the Society of Jesus in Canada, Fr Gilles Mongeau, says, "The physical, sexual and psychological violence suffered by approximately 150,000 residential school children in Canada continues to affect their families."

By Griselda Mutual - Quebec, Canada

In a wide ranging interview with Vatican News, Father Gilles Mongeau S.J., Vicar Provincial of the Jesuits of Canada, discusses a number of issues including, Indigenous communities in Canada, and the types of abuse suffered by the children in these communities, a reflection on the integration of indigenous spiritualities, and the words spoken by the Pope Francis in the country.

Q: The Holy Father has come to Canada on a "penitential pilgrimage", as he himself said, to meet and embrace Indigenous peoples "especially in the name of Jesus". In your opinion, do these words by the Pope frame this Apostolic Journey in a special way by changing the perspective of what has been done so far for reconciliation and healing, or, on the contrary, by giving it a new impetus?

We hope that the pope's spirit, manifested in his statements, helps give new energies to the movement towards reconciliation between the Church and Indigenous communities in the territory we now call Canada. Of course, not everyone will be happy about the pope's visit or his words, but we will probably see a much greater flow of energy.

The pope's words are in line with what we saw during his meeting with the Indigenous delegations in Rome, in March/April of this year. It was the same atmosphere and personal attitude of Francis that, we hope, will have a significant impact today. It is also aligned with how the organizers have framed the visit itself. The website dedicated to the visit explains that it will be primarily a unique opportunity for him to once again listen and dialogue with Indigenous Peoples, to be close and to address the impact of colonisation and the participation of the Church in operating residential schools throughout Canada.

It’s also important to remember that the Pope is visiting Indigenous peoples, not Canada.

As we saw during the Pope’s meeting with the Indigenous delegations in Rome, it is the atmosphere and personal attitude of Francis that will have a significant impact.

During this week, it will be important to listen not only to the Pope’s speeches (because his words will be carefully chosen) but also to his informal comments and his reactions, as well as to the responses of the Indigenous people and the attitude of the crowds. It should be noted that non-Catholics are of course also welcome to attend the events.

Q: Pope Francis on Monday reaffirmed the importance of the memorial for children who attended residential schools, because "forgetting leads to indifference". What do you have to say about the Holy Father’s words?

These words of the Holy Father are significant. It is necessary to remember how the policies of assimilation and alienation, which also included the residential school system, were and continue to be devastating for Indigenous communities. The physical, sexual and psychological violence suffered by approximately 150,000 residential school students continues to affect their families. The trauma is intergenerational. The forces and structures that led to these abuses have not disappeared from Canadian society; one of the most difficult truths to face is the simple fact that descendants of settlers and new immigrants continue to benefit from the economic and political injustices committed against Indigenous peoples. What is needed is a profound transformation of the relationships that make up the nation of Canada, at the cultural, political, economic and interpersonal levels. This kind of transformation can only be fuelled by genuine love of neighbour, and in order to recognize my Indigenous sister and brother as a neighbour, I have to be alive to their lived reality. Memory makes present in a vivid way the realities of the past, not to awaken guilt, but to trigger compassion and love, to make vividly present to me that this is my sister, my brother. Only this kind of energy can fuel the profound conversion needed. Forgetting leads to indifference, and indifference means nothing will change. The apology of the Holy Father is a step forward in the search for truth, justice and reconciliation, but it is merely the beginning. Concrete actions must continue to be taken.

Q: How many residential schools were operated by the Jesuits?  

We operated one school in Spanish, Ontario, from 1845 until 1958, when it closed. Its identity and mission evolved over the years.

Q: What kinds of abuse were seen in these schools?

It depends on the school. Abuse comes chiefly in three forms: very harsh physical punishments that you could call physical abuse; sexual abuse; and then cultural genocide, which is the main abuse being considered today. It was a harm that weighed not only on these particular children, but also on all those born into their families after them. These children were no longer connected to their families. The trauma of the loss of culture, of language, is profound, and it affects subsequent generations. One survivor has said, "I never had a real father, so I didn't know how to be a father to my children." This touches on profound psychological realities.

Q: How do you develop Indigenous ministry today, and have there been any changes in recent years?

In recent years, and especially since the Jesuits' statement of apology and commitment in 2015, the influence of Indigenous Peoples on the Jesuits in Canada has grown in extent and depth. Here are some examples.

With respect to education, we actively support two middle schools that concentrate primarily on Indigenous children. They give a lot of attention to individual pupils and their families and teach Indigenous cultural and spiritual traditions. The two schools are also committed to supporting their pupils even after graduation. We hope to help lessen barriers and gaps in education and employment between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in the country.

Concerning language and culture, we encourage the use of Indigenous languages and ceremonies in Catholic religious services. We also make accessible to researchers the historical linguistic resources in our archives.

With respect to access to records about residential schools, we supported the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in preserving the records and files from the Spanish residential school. 

Q: What has been the Jesuits' involvement in the process of reconciliation between the Catholic Church and the Indigenous peoples in Canada, and what fruits do you see?

The role of the Jesuits in the broader process of reconciliation between the Church in Canada and Indigenous people goes back to the mid-1990’s. The Church as a whole has been slow to really begin a process of reconciliation, with the exception of a few bishops. The Jesuits may have been involved earlier, though we are not necessarily an example to follow. But we have apologised, we have paid compensation, and our relationships with some Indigenous groups have been deepened and broadened as a result. Apologising and trying to reconcile is painful but worth it.

We recognize that we are most ourselves when we are in right relationship with Indigenous peoples.

Q: What is the relationship between the Society of Jesus and Indigenous Peoples today?

Our relationships with some Indigenous groups have been deepened and broadened since the beginning of reconciliation efforts.

We feel called and committed to listen, to be with. We want not only to serve, but to continue to learn what Canada looks like from Indigenous perspectives and to understand what it means to be allies and friends. This desire guides our efforts.

I would also say that we also recognize a certain lag or gap between our desire and our lived reality. We encourage Jesuits and partners to have honest conversations about the ways in which our communities and apostolates are often perceived to be places of privilege, so that they can become more and more places of openness, hospitality and friendship with those who are excluded.

Q: One of the tasks you are carrying out is decolonisation. Is this a goal that is being achieved? In what ways are you doing this? 

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission called on churches to develop education strategies about the role of churches in colonisation. We have been responding to this call in different ways..

In September 2019, the Canadian provincial, Fr. Erik Oland, SJ, assigned a Jesuit priest to work full time to promote our 2015 commitment, to work toward decolonization among Jesuits in a more systematic way, by encouraging our ministries to develop relations with Indigenous people, communities, and organizations.

As part of these efforts, Jesuits in training are involved in experiences led by Indigenous Elders. Schools are responsible for incorporating this history into their teaching programmes.

We also helped to organize a week-long intensive theology course at St. Paul University in Ottawa on the Church and Reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples. This brought together many Indigenous and non-Indigenous persons, especially Catholics, active in reconciliation work across the country.

We are also exploring with Indigenous and non-Indigenous Christians ways to decolonize the practice of the Christian faith and to encourage Catholics in Canada to appreciate the richness of Indigenous spiritualities.

Most importantly, we continue to be in relationship with Indigenous people through Indigenous Catholic parishes around Georgian Bay and Thunder Bay, through Kateri Native Ministry in Ottawa, as well as through the middle schools in Regina and Winnipeg.

Q: Recognising the presence of God in Indigenous spiritualities and ceremonies is an important step towards integration. How do you see this process in Canada?

The process began in earnest in the late 1980’s, in indigenous parishes and in centers like the Anishinabe Spiritual Centre run by the Jesuits in Espanola, Ontario. It is a process that is still ongoing, and that requires a careful listening to elders and to indigenous Catholics. Indigenous peoples must take the lead in this process, to prevent cultural appropriation and deformation, which would be just another form of colonialism. Indigenous spiritualities are particularly alive with an awareness of deep relationship with the natural environment, and the dialogue with these traditional spiritualities has taught us much about what an ecological spirituality in the Church could be.

28 July 2022, 12:16