Oblate Ministry among Aboriginal Peoples of Canada
By: Camille Piché, OMI
The Oblate apology at Lac St. Anne in 1991 had already stirred the Oblates and the Church of Canada deeply. In this apology and in front of 20,000 aboriginal people, Doug Crosby, OMI, then president of the Oblate Conference of Canada, admitted that the “systemic cultural, ethnic, linguistic and religious imperialism that Oblates were part of……continually threatened the cultural, linguistic and religious traditions of the Native people. Thinking that European languages, tradition and religious practices were superior, he said, they saw it as an advantage to take the children away from their parents,” Many welcomed the Apology and thanked the Oblates for daring such a courageous and prophetic act while others described it as simply outrageous.
In the 15 years since then, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate have continued their ministry among First Nations but have had to deal with thousands of lawsuits from former students of Indian Residential Schools (IRS). The schools were begun out of necessity once the buffalo were gone and the fur trade collapsed. With small pox, Spanish flu, tuberculosis and such epidemics recurring frequently, the native population was decimated and the people destitute. The Government of Canada thought it was the end of the Red Race or “Indians” as they called the natives of Canada and spoke of them as a “vanishing race.” The future, according to them, was with the new European immigrants arriving in Western Canada by the thousands.
Vital Grandin, OMI, bishop of St. Albert, Alberta and Father Albert Lacombe, OMI, thought differently and developed a plan in the early 1880’s for educating Indian children in Western Canada. Journalist Ed Struzik wrote in December 2005: “Having lived with the Blackfoot, Cree and other tribes when they were prosperous hunting cultures, both priests were mortified to see how the Indians had been reduced to catching gophers and mice and killing their own dogs to feed their starving families after signing treaties and settling on reserves.” He continues: “Regarding the destitute Indians of the prairies in the same light as de Mazenod saw the poor of France as valued but uncherished members of society who had to be saved…..he (Lacombe) felt it was their Christian duty to provide them with skills they needed to take part in the new white man’s world”.
Begun with good intentions however, a number of factors contributed to serious problems, not the least of which was Government’s under-funding. Lacombe’s vision was to “get the most talented and dedicated people teaching at the IRS; instead Assistant Indian Commissioner Hayter Reed responded: “It is expected that residential schools will employ officials at less wages and buy necessary provisions at a cheaper rate.” This pretty well set the stage for the next 125 years: chronic lack of funding plagued the schools throughout their history, resulted in poorly built schools, poor education because of a lack of books and qualified teachers. There were an inadequate staff and poor health standards. In those circumstances, the results were predictable. Added to that, although serious efforts were made by many missionaries to learn aboriginal languages, nevertheless, during his visit to Canada in 1936, Father Laboure, OMI, Superior General, admonished school directors for “abandoning aboriginal languages,” adding also: “Regulations forbidding children to talk in their mother tongue even during recreation are so strict in certain schools that the least infraction is severely punished; so much so,” he adds, “that children came to believe that talking in their language was a serious fault and returning home, were ashamed to talk with their parents.” Former students rightly added linguistic and cultural abuse to their list of grievances. The Apology was offered in the context of this history of the IRS.
Since then, Oblates have continued ministry to aboriginal communities as thousands of former students (there are over 80,000) filed lawsuits against the Government, the Oblates, religious communities and dioceses with a whole litany of grievances, from forced confinement to physical and sexual abuse. Oblates and church people struggled to “find the truth,” saying that if wrongs were committed and abuse proven, they must be righted. Not an easy task, as we are dealing with records with 125 years of history in many communities and the fact that most accused Oblates are dead and are unable to defend themselves. Validation of claims became an important justice issue, not only for students who had been hurt, but also to safeguard the reputation of the Oblates. Particular attention was paid to cases of sexual abuse which left deep scars and profoundly affected the lives of young students in our care.
Throughout these last years, many have identified IRS litigation as a heavy cross to bear. It would be too easy to dismiss all accusations and say that we are being unjustly accused. The cross is a redemptive act for everyone, and through unenlightened colonialism, Aboriginal people throughout the world have had to bear the brunt of injustice, in many cases with their lives. It is true that we imposed our Latin language and rituals, our religious customs and ways and too readily interpreted their spirituality as superstition and, as mentioned in the Apology, “broke their peace pipes.”
Perhaps now, if these events can be understood as a certain purification of our mission, we can continue our ministry with a renewed dialogue. In-kind commitments will require that we work along with native people, or First Nations as they now choose to be called, and not for them. According to the agreement, ministry, projects, and programs will have to be approved and assessed by both the Oblates and the Aboriginal people. The Apology stated: “recognizing that within every sincere apology, there is implicit the promise of conversion to a new way of acting, we, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate of Canada, wish to pledge ourselves to a renewed relationship with the Native People of Canada.” We now have the occasion to do so. Oblates have now committed significant amounts of money and personnel to aboriginal ministry for the next 10 years, offering us the challenge of a “renewed relationship.”
Since the missions to Canada began in 1841 under Bishop de Mazenod, Oblates have been evangelizing the Indigenous peoples throughout the North and in Western Canada. Marked by noble acts of heroism as well as personal failure, the Oblates of OMI Lacombe Canada are now writing a closing chapter to this 160 years of history and in the Spirit of St Eugene de Mazenod, have pledged themselves to journey with the Native people on the path of healing and reconciliation.