CANMORE – Our Lady of the Rockies Roman Catholic Parish has apologized for removing shoes and items left to memorialize the 215 children whose remains were recently discovered buried at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.
Fr. Nathan Siray issued a statement on Saturday (June 5) apologizing for not allowing the memorials to remain in place in front of the Canmore church for an appropriate length of time and for the pain and distress those actions caused.
In an interview with the Outlook, Siray said after receiving emails, letters and social media posts not only expressing anger and frustration, but showed aggression against the church community, it left him concerned about the well-being of the parish.
"In retrospect, so often when you react in the spirit of fear, you are not thinking about the bigger picture," he said. "Now that I think about it, I regret that I could have allowed the memorial to stay out longer to make it more visible, so people could have a sense of its importance.
"That is where I took a misstep and I should not have allowed the fear of what could happen stand in the way of allowing people to mourn. If people come and want to leave something, we will make sure it stays there for a longer period of time; then we will appropriately remove them and give them to a good cause."
An outpouring of grief and mourning, as well as calls for a greater commitment to truth and reconciliation efforts, has been happening in First Nation communities and across Canada. In the Bow Valley, shoes, teddy bears, and other items were left at various locations to honour the children who were taken from their families by the Canadian government and put in church-run residential schools, but never came home.
Canmore resident Adam Branchaud and his family wrote letters and delivered them to St. Michael's Anglican Church, MLA Miranda Rosin's office and the new $14 million Shrine Church of the Canadian Rockies located on Palliser Trail on June 1.
He said his friends had also placed shoes in front of the Catholic church as a vigil, but when he arrived they had already been removed. His family left shoes, the letter and a sweet grass braid, which were also removed that same day.
Branchaud said the church has already tried to hide its involvement in the residential school system. That includes refusing to release documents and records related to the residential school system, and Pope Francis has not formally apologized for the role the church played, despite ongoing calls from the public and Canadian government to do so.
He said by quickly removing the items left as a vigil, he was left feeling angry and frustrated because it felt like another attempt to hide the truth about the lived experience of Indigenous people and residential school survivors.
"It wasn't graffiti, or knocking things down," he said. "It was shoes and it promotes love and human fellowship and they cannot even stand up to the fact that the shoes symbolize this hatred and the horrible things that happened.
"Their reaction was way to quick and that is another blemish on the relationship moving forward."
Branchaud, who grew up in the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory in Ontario on the Bay of Quinte, learned at a young age about the atrocities of the residential school system and its effects on generations of Indigenous people. When the news of the bodies being found in Kamloops spread, he said he wasn't surprised, but he was shocked so many Canadians have remained unaware of this shameful history.
It has been frustrating to watch how people in the country respond in the short-term after stories like the discovery of the 215 children are in the spotlight, he said, but after the focus of news coverage moves onto something else, people's attention and commitment to taking action to move reconciliation forward also fades.
"It is a hot topic in the news, but the First Nations stuff seems to be swept under the rug pretty quickly," he said. "I think people need to know the full truth. We need everybody to know actually what happened."
On May 27, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced the preliminary results of using ground-penetrating radar to search the grounds of the residential school.
“We had a knowing in our community that we were able to verify. To our knowledge, these missing children are undocumented deaths,” said Kukpi7 (Chief) Rosanne Casimir in a press release. “Some were as young as three years old. We sought out a way to confirm that knowing out of deepest respect and love for those lost children and their families, understanding that Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc is the final resting place of these children.”
Branchaud said knowing the full truth is necessary to move toward reconciliation. It is only with a full accounting of the truth, and how that directly relates to current circumstances of Indigenous people, the voices of survivors will be heard so healing can begin – even if the details are difficult to process.
He said he does not have a direct connection to residential schools, but growing up on a reserve meant it has affected him. He said all former residential school sites need to be scanned for remains, which was part of the calls to action released by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015.
"I have a little boy who is five years old," Branchaud said. "If I was born in a different time, my kid wouldn't be here [with his family]."
With 60 per cent of residential schools having been run by the Catholic Church, Branchaud said an apology from the very top of the organization is needed.
The Anglican, United and Presbyterian churches, as well as the federal government, have issued official apologies. Branchaud said the Anglican Church, for example, is still paying into the Residential School Survivor Fund.
"They have done their part and they are still doing their part moving forward and I have not seen that on the Catholic side of things," he said. "Your faith and religion should not be tied to a building, it should be tied to acting in a certain way."
While the Pope has not officially apologized, Calgary Bishop William McGrattan issued a public apology June 4 and recommitted the diocese to pursue justice, reconciliation and healing. He was joined in a statement by all bishops in Alberta and the Northwest Territories.
"The picture and images of children's shoes placed at the front steps with lit candles remind us of the voices of these children and the need for restorative justice," wrote McGratten. "In prayer, we unite ourselves with our suffering brothers and sisters so that the Spirit will show us the path of solidarity in promoting true justice and healing. For those families deeply impacted, we ask for the intercession of St. Kateri Tekakwitha for them to receive consolation, healing, and strength."
Tekakwitha was canonized by the church in 2012. An Algonquin-Mohawk, she contracted smallpox, but survived while the rest of her family died in the epidemic. She converted to Catholicism at the age of 19 and spend the last five years of her life part of a Jesuit mission village south of Montreal.
Siray said the middle bell in the tower at the shrine church has been blessed and named in honour of the saint. He said it is his hope when the bell is rung it serves as a prayer and reminder for the work that needs to continue towards truth and reconciliation.
"With the reality of residential schools, we need ongoing truth and reconciliation, and healing," he said. "I hope the bell can be a reminder that this is something that should continue."