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Catholic school board trying to reconcile church's ties to residential school (3 photos)

Residential school survivor talks abuse, healing with Catholic educators following Pope's refusal to apologize

It’s Friday morning, and a prayer is being recited in the board office of the Huron Superior Catholic District School Board (HSCDSB).

Then, Edmund Metatawabin offers the group of catholic school principals in attendance a prayer of his own - in Cree - as he holds an eagle feather, acknowledging the four directions.

Metatawabin, who survived years of abuse while attending the Catholic-run St. Anne’s Residential School in Fort Albany, Ont., has come back to Sault Ste. Marie to share his story with educators.

“I feel honoured, it’s good to talk to them,” said Metatawabin. “I’m glad that I can talk to them and express my own experience, and then we share commonalities and experiences that somebody was not telling us the truth and trying to keep us apart, so we’ve broken that barrier, so now we shake hands and talk.”

It was a residential school-themed graphic novel project spearheaded by St. Mary’s French Immersion School teacher Anick Champagne-Hickey that has brought Metatawabin to speak with the HSCDSB school principals.

“I think it’s important on our path to truth and reconciliation,” said Champagne-Hickey. “That everybody’s on the same page, that everybody understands the journey that we’re on, and that people see a residential school survivor and hear his story firsthand.”

After watching a documentary about St. Anne’s residential school, Metatawabin spoke of Canada’s efforts to hide the abuse that he had suffered during his eight years at that same institution.

“A lot of documents are being withheld by government and church, and they don’t want the public to know the extent of abuse committed on children,” Metatawabin said during his presentation. “It’s all about child abuse, abuse of power, and just trying to undermine the integrity of a nation. That way, the land is left open for exploitation.”

Nearly two weeks ago, it was widely reported that Pope Francis will not apologize for the Catholic Church’s role in the abuses inflicted upon Indigenous peoples across Canada by way of the residential school system.  

Metatawabin says that it’s up to us, as Canadians, to question the Pope’s decision.

“There’s a lot of things to try and explore, find out and assess,” Metatawabin said. “So we also have to question him, meaning all Canadians have to question the Pope.”

When SooToday asked HSCDSB director of education Rose Burton Spohn what she thought of the decision not to offer an apology, she said that the Catholic school board has been organizing a number of Indigenous activities for staff and students - such as bringing Metatawabin to HSCDSB schools for speaking engagements - in an effort to make ‘very real steps’ toward reconciliation.

“I don’t have an understanding as to what kind of information he would have been provided with, I don’t know why he made the decision that he made,” said Burton Spohn. “I don’t pretend to walk in the Pope’s shoes.”

“Our board is interested in reconciling and doing its part to make our employees and our students and our families and our community aware of at least some of what has transpired in Canada.”

Sister Pat Carter, who is the religious education and family life consultant for HSCDSB and a Sister of Saint Joseph, says she’s unsure of the Pope’s rationale behind his decision to not offer an apology.

“Somebody is informing him about the fact that he shouldn’t do this, I don’t know who that is or what is happening,” said Carter.

Sister Carter has even taken to Twitter to make her feelings known. In September of last year, she tweeted that she is “still praying that Pope Francis will come to Canada to apologize to Indigenous who were forced to attend Residential schools.”

“I know that’s a social medium that he uses, so that’s why I chose that way to get my voice out there,” Carter said.

Champagne-Hickey says that her school board will continue to do its best to implement recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and that stories like Metatawabin’s will ultimately benefit her fellow educators.

“I think hearing these hard stories is the way for us to move forward,” said Champagne-Hickey. “For many educators, this may have been the first time that they heard of Edmund’s story, but it is now the right time to do something about it.”


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James Hopkin

About the Author: James Hopkin

James Hopkin is a reporter for SooToday in Sault Ste. Marie
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