Mr. Speaker, I am tremendously honoured to rise in this House to speak in favour of a powerful opposition day motion that I am proud comes from our party, the NDP, and to acknowledge the work of my colleague, the member of Parliament for Timmins—James Bay, and my colleague, the member of Parliament for Abitibi—Baie-James—Nunavik—Eeyou.
To be clear, today's opposition day motion is responding to the call of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to move our nation on a path of true healing for the crimes of the residential school era. We, the House, invite Pope Francis to participate in this journey with Canadians by responding to call to action 58 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's report, and issue a formal papal apology for the role of the Canadian Catholic Church in the establishment, operation, and abuses of residential schools.
We also call upon the Canadian Catholic Church to live up to their moral obligations in the spirit of the 2006 Indian residential school settlement agreement and to resume best efforts to raise the full amount of the agreed-upon funds, and we call on the Catholic entities that were involved in the running of the residential schools to make a consistent and sustained effort to turn over relevant documents when called upon by survivors of residential schools, their families, and scholars who are working to understand the full scope of the horrors of the residential school system in the interest of truth and reconciliation.
I come from northern Manitoba and grew up in Thompson, which is on the traditional territory of the Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation on Treaty No. 5 territory. Anyone who grows up in our north has been exposed to the trauma and the devastating experiences that so many faced going to residential schools and that so many generations following residential school survivors have faced as well.
I remember at a young age visiting with elders across our north, who talked about the residential school system and what it meant to be ripped away from your family and to go to a school where children were punished for speaking their own language. I also remember hearing references to a kind of abuse that we could not even imagine.
I grew up with kids who talked about their grandparents going to residential schools, what that meant in terms of losing their bonds to culture and traditions, and their absolute interest and passion to reconnect with those traditions, languages, and roots. It was a reconnection that they wanted to make because it was so important to them. Unfortunately, it had to be made as a reconnection, because for decades the Canadian state, in co-operation with churches, broke that critical connection.
As I began to pursue activism in the political realm, some of my most inspiring mentors were residential school survivors, people who went through unspeakable abuse and trauma, yet went on to find great strength in leading their people and their nations in fighting back.
I am reminded of people such as Elder Raymond Robinson in Cross Lake, a residential school survivor himself. Having gone through all of the challenges that so many survivors have gone through, he went on to be one of the people who helped create the Manitoba Indian Brotherhood. He talked about the importance of being engaged, the importance of reconnecting with tradition, and the importance of fighting for self-determination. He went on to be an incredible champion when it came to fighting against the devastation we saw from Manitoba Hydro and in fighting the ongoing colonial policies put forward by Ottawa in successive governments.
His legacy continues to live on. In fact, many of his children have gone on to be leaders, both elected and community leaders in Cross Lake and in other communities across our province. I am reminded that out of great difficulty came an immeasurable strength that inspired me and many others to carry on the struggle to build a better world for first nations and for northern Manitobans.
I visit communities, as I have visit over the years, I have spent a fair bit of time hearing stories about the devastation of residential schools in our area. I am sad to say that many of those residential schools were run by the Catholic Church. It is extremely disappointing, frankly, it is angering that the Catholic Church is putting up barriers when it comes to making the most simple act of reconciliation, the act of an apology, a reality.
It really hits home because a lot of the time that I spend in our north, I cross the areas in which the residential schools once stood, places like where the Guy Hill residential school used to be, a school that existed in northern Manitoba from 1926 to 1979. Just three years before I was born, this residential school continued to exist, a residential school that thousands of young people from across our region attended and one where many experienced unbelievable abuse.
The Guy Hill residential school is known for many things, but when we spend just a few moments looking at its records, we can tell very quickly that a lot of what happened there was completely unacceptable. There are records from 1951 that indicated, “This school is woefully overcrowded and I note that the double deck beds which were recommended are still lacking. From a health point of view though would be of material benefit to the children.” The documents at that time in 1951 also noted that there was a “rather serious epidemic which has affected 19 boys of various ages. This may turn out to be tuberculosis…”.
In 1958, the records at that time indicated that water at the new school was contaminated and “found to be dangerous as it contains bacteria usually found in sewage.” A year later, in 1959, the water at the school was still unhealthy to consume, yet the children who attended that school were forced to consume it and were forced to live in those conditions.
I am reminded of the work of Ian Mosby and other researchers and academics. They have talked about the way in which children underwent not just treacherous conditions but oftentimes were forced, without their knowledge of course, to undergo experiments with respect to malnutrition and to living in substandard condition. It was known that this was the reality in some of these schools and was on record at that time, yet the conditions persisted and that kind of abuse continued.
There were other residential schools in our area. The Fort Alexander residential school was in the south end of my constituency. A 1963 letter indicated that a Fort Alexander student expressed fear at returning to the institution because he alleged frequent rebukes by staff and the likelihood of corporal punishment upon return. These are the stories we hear all too often: of beatings, of physical abuse, of sexual abuse; abuse that would not be imaginable, never mind tolerated, in any setting let alone an educational setting.
I have heard many of those stories and the have everlasting impacts on survivors. I have heard how many have struggled with the trauma that has come from that. Some have turned to alcohol and substance abuse to get away from those traumatic memories and experiences. Here we are, knowing that in 1963 and 1958, and on the record, students, young people, were forced into these conditions. This is unacceptable, without question.
One residential school that is well known in our region for the kinds of inhumane conditions that existed, another residential school run by the Catholic Church, was the one in Cross Lake. There is a fair bit of information on the record from 1918 all the way to 1949 that shows there were serious issues taking place at the residential school.
The record states that in 1943:
...a doctor insisted that the spread of tuberculosis at the Cross Lake IRS was the result of poor air quality and overcrowding in the dormitories. As a result, the federal government advised the Church that no more than 80 children be kept in residence at the Cross Lake IRS during the 1943-44 school year
It further states that in 1944-45:
During the late fall and early winter, almost all the children at the Cross Lake IRS were infected with...Jaundice. A medical officer linked the epidemic to overcrowding in the dormitories, with the school population at 96 pupils, which he “strongly condemn[ed].
Respected professionals were on the record of saying that these were inhumane conditions and that children were getting sick as a result, yet the church and the government continued to oversee those inhumane conditions.
The story of Cross Lake is one we hear often back home up north. Many people felt a real sense of justice when the students actually set fire to that residential school. Although everybody was able to get out safely, there was talk of how the students took it in their own hands to put an end to a place that was causing them so much hurt.
Just the idea that children lived in those conditions, away from their families, ripped apart from their culture and community, and forced to face inhumane conditions and unspeakable abuse is shocking.
That brings me back to what we are discussing today, a motion that really reflects the desire of certainly our party, and I understand of other parliamentarians as well, to begin to address the wrongs through a formal apology from the Catholic Church. We know other churches have taken the step, and it is deeply frustrating for many people, those who are of the Catholic faith, as well as others, that the Catholic Church is still not willing to apologize. I know many people are hopeful, given the fact that the current pope, Pope Francis, has been rather progressive and open-minded when it comes to notions of reconciliation, and his work in Latin America has indicated such. Therefore, we feel there is an opening, a possibility there to begin that road of reconciliation with respect to the survivors of Catholic residential schools.
Because of certain barriers placed by senior officials in the Catholic Church, it is disappointing that it is up to Parliament to reflect where Canadians are with this, and to ask for this apology, but here we are.
It is time for us to show leadership on this front. Parliament has done so a few times on this important issue. I am reminded of the national apology in 2008. I am reminded of the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which had the support of Parliament. It is only fitting that, despite the challenges, we once again call for this kind of action by the Catholic Church, and it is incumbent on us to do so, given the fact that Parliament unfortunately oversaw this kind of unspeakable abuse through its support of the residential school system.
What we are doing here today is one very small step in saying that we know the history that has come before us is one where many wrongs had been done, and that we as parliamentarians today, in 2018, must take leadership and encourage those who had the ultimate responsibility to take a moment to say they are sorry, and to begin that path of reconciliation.
The government apologized in 2008 and the various churches, except for the Catholic Church, have apologized. It is important to know that call to action 58 of the Truth and Reconciliation indicated explicitly that a papal apology was seen as key for the process of reconciliation. It is time the Pope deliver one. Popes have made similar apologies, such as the apology in 2010 to Irish victims of Catholic abuse, in 2015 by the current pope to the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas for the church's role in colonization, and on April 11 to victims of abuse in Chile.
The residential school system was created by religious organizations and governments together. Through this motion, we in Parliament are calling on our fellow partners in the residential school system, the Catholic Church, to apologize formally.
The Government of Canada inappropriately let the church off the hook for a significant part of its financial obligations under the 2006 Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement. It was obligated to pay $79 million and was discharged from paying back $37.8 million. The government and church were both defendants in the actions that led to the Indian residential schools process for survivors and we believe it was wrong that they were let off the hook when it came to paying this money back.
We need to recognize that we have an opportunity, as members and as a Parliament, to do the right thing. This is not about fixing a traumatic and very negative chapter in our country's history, but about encouraging those responsible to start the reconciliation process. That is why we urge Parliament to unanimously support a motion calling on the Pope and the Catholic Church to give survivors an opportunity to take a step towards reconciliation, together.
I rise in the House thinking of survivors, including my colleague, the MP for Abitibi—Baie-James—Nunavik—Eeyou, the survivors at home, so many who have passed, those children and grandchildren of survivors, some of whom, as friends of mine, have told me about the devastating intergenerational impacts of residential schools.
As a new parent, the idea that so many parents had their children ripped away from them, had their culture and their traditions stolen from them, were faced with unspeakable abuse is unfathomable. That is why I take this opportunity as a member of Parliament, as someone who is proud of where I come from, to say that this is our moment in time to show leadership. This is our moment in time as parliamentarians to send a unanimous message that the Catholic Church and the Pope must apologize and must begin this journey of reconciliation with survivors. It is time. Survivors deserve it. First nations deserve it. We hope, through this motion, that this day will come soon.