Quebec still grapples with ‘dark chapter’ ahead of Pope’s visit | Indigenous Rights News

Disclaimer: The story below contains details about residential schools that may be upsetting. The Crisis Line for Residential School Survivors and Families of Canada is available 24 hours a day at 1-866-925-4419.

Montreal, Quebec, Canada – During Pope Francis’ visit to Canada next week, Ghislain Picard says he hopes the needs of residential school survivors will be the Roman Catholic leader’s top priority.

The Pope should once again apologize for the role Church members have played in the abuse of Indigenous children in the institutions of forced assimilation, which have operated across Canada for decades from of the late 1800s.

The discovery of unmarked graves at several former residential school sites over the past year makes the Pope’s trip all the more critical, said Picard, Quebec and Labrador regional chief at the Assembly of First Nations (AFN). . “There are thousands of suspects [unmarked grave] sites,” he told Al Jazeera. “So I think the pope’s visit has taken on even more significance.”

In Quebec, a predominantly French-speaking and Catholic province that will be the second stop on the Pope’s July 24-29 tour, the visit also presents an opportunity to raise awareness of the horrors of residential schools and dispel long-held myths, said Picard. .

For decades, some have argued that the residential school system in Quebec – which has its own distinct history of forced British rule and Catholic Church domination of public life – was not “as bad” as in the rest of the country because the province had fewer residential schools. schools, and they opened later than other institutions and generally operated for less time.

But it’s an argument that Picard dismissed as “unacceptable” because the devastating effects of the schools still reverberated through generations of Indigenous families and communities – and continue to be felt today. “Even if it was one person, against maybe 1,000 people, the impact was felt and continues to be felt,” he said.

“It is truly a dark chapter in Canadian history that needs to be known…It is an education worth supporting and I think the Pope’s visit will certainly add to our efforts.

The Pope’s visit

Pope Francis’ tour of Canada will begin July 24 in Edmonton, Alberta, where he plans to meet residential school survivors before heading to Quebec City, the provincial capital, for two days of events. He will end his journey in the northern territory of Nunavut on July 29.

The visit comes just months after the pope apologized to an indigenous delegation that had traveled to Rome, asking for forgiveness for the “deplorable conduct” of members of the Catholic Church in boarding schools.

More than 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children were forced to attend schools from the late 1800s until the 1990s. The institutions, which were created and funded by the Canadian government and run by churches, were subject to abuse. Thousands of children are thought to have died.

A federal inquiry, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), concluded in 2015 that the residential school system amounted to “cultural genocide.” Among dozens of calls to action (PDF), the TRC had urged the pope to apologize to Canada, where the wrongs were committed.

Opinions on the Pope’s apology to Rome and his upcoming visit to Canada differ between residential school survivors and members of the Indigenous community, with some saying it is an important step and others dismissing it as too little, too late.

Michele Audette, senior adviser on reconciliation at Laval University in Quebec, said people’s views on the pope’s visit are extremely personal and varied, but pointed to an apology as one of the calls to action. of the TRC.

“People who have lived through the abuse and trauma, and all who are still alive today, some are still in survival mode while others have taken a path in which they say, ‘Come look at me in eyes, and say what you have to tell me about my territory where these things happened,” Audette told Al Jazeera.

“’And send a message across the world, a symbolic gesture, a gesture in which your word must now be honored by many other religious communities, by your religious communities. How will they bring this apology to life, on a daily basis, from your visit here? »

“A Quebec Story”

The Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, a Class Action Settlement approved in 2006 between government, churches and residential school survivors, officially recognized 139 boarding schools.

From these, 12 were in Quebec. Many institutions opened their doors in the 1950s and 1960s – later than those in other provinces and territories – as part of a campaign to colonize north-central Quebec that also involved the relocation of Indigenous communities and the creation of reserves. “The building of schools…has also been prompted by pressure from local Catholic and Anglican church officials and, in some cases, in response to parents’ objections to the practice of sending their children to even more distant boarding schools. “, said the TRC (PDF).

But the residential school model dates back many years and is linked to Quebec City, one of the oldest colonies in North America. “The first boarding school for Aboriginals in what is now Canada was established in the early 17th century near the French trading post on the future site of Quebec City,” the TRC found in its final report (PDF).

The TRC said the Roman Catholic school, which aimed to “civilize” and “Christianize” Aboriginal boys, was a failure, however, as parents were unwilling to send their children and many of those enrolled fled. The British conquest of the territory in the 1760s then forced the idea of ​​boarding schools to “lay dormant” until the early 1800s, when institutions began to open elsewhere.

In the middle of this century, Quebec Catholic priests, nuns and other missionaries were sent to the Canadian Prairies and western regions to advance colonization there, explained Catherine Larochelle, professor of history at the University of Montreal specialized in colonialism.

Even before the federal government got involved in residential schools, missionaries from Quebec — a province where historically, and to this day, most people identify as Catholic — established schools in which to evangelize children. western natives, Larochelle told Al Jazeera. Although largely “unsuccessful,” these early institutions served as the foundation on which Ottawa later built its national residential school system, she said.

“There were a lot of French Canadians [religious] the women…they are the ones who made the residential schools work,” Larochelle said. At the same time, “the Catholic population of Quebec funded the start of residential schools through donations to Catholic charities,” she said, adding that by the turn of the 20th century, the general population was aware and supported the effort.

All that, Larochelle wrotemeans that “the history of the Canadian genocide is a Quebec history” – although it remains largely unknown in the province.

“There is obviously a history in Quebec of English domination over the French-Canadian population,” Larochelle said, but digging into other stories “in which French-Canadians weren’t necessarily the dominated can only help make peace with the past. ”

Systemic racism

A spokesperson for Quebec’s Minister of Indigenous Affairs told Al Jazeera the province remains committed to helping Indigenous people get the help they need in their search for answers and healing over residential schools.

Mathieu Durocher cited as an example the appointment by the governments of Quebec and Canada in June 2021 of a special liaison officer to help Indigenous communities access various resources. Quebec last month too unveiled a five-year, C$141 million ($108 million) plan to support First Nations and Inuit, including through the preservation of Indigenous languages ​​and culture.

“The history of residential schools is a dark period. Quebec, Canada and the whole world were shocked by the discoveries that began in Kamloops with the 215 unmarked graves… We cannot exclude that this could also happen in Quebec. We must put everything in place to support communities and survivors in their wishes,” Durocher said in an email.

But the government of right-wing Quebec premier François Legault has been widely criticized for refusing to acknowledge the existence of systemic racism in the province, despite multiple reports (PDF) detailing how anti-Indigenous bias permeates state institutions, including in health care.

A man walks past a banner that reads
The discovery of unmarked graves at former residential school sites across Canada in the past year has sparked protests and calls for accountability [File: Blair Gable/Reuters]

“We first recognize that there is racism in Quebec, and we have to fight against that,” Durocher said. “Beyond the debate on the semantics around the term ‘systemic racism’, a term that does not enjoy a consensus in Quebec, we must put in place concrete actions to combat racism in all its forms. That’s exactly what we do.

Yet calls for the government to recognize and work to end systemic racism have intensified in recent years, particularly when an Indigenous woman named Joyce Echaquan died in a Quebec hospital in 2020 after staff told her. hurled racial slurs. Her family later said systemic racism killed the Atikamekw mother of seven.

“The colonial roots did not pass through or circumvent Quebec to go from Ontario to New Brunswick; Unfortunately, they cross here too,” said audette, who is from the Innu community of Uashat mak Mani-Utenam. She added that “very deep prejudices” persist, but that she draws her strength from people who take action to change things.

“It is clear that the government’s positions do not help our anti-racism efforts, do not help our education efforts,” said AFN’s Picard, who also criticized the fact that Quebec refused to apply the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

But we are not going to give up. We will continue to try at least to influence the people of Quebec, especially on the eve of the official call of the provincial elections.

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