Canada, on the road to heal past wounds, waiting for Pope Francis’ visit

“Dear brothers and sisters of Canada, as you know, I will come among you above all in the name of Jesus to meet and embrace the indigenous peoples”. On Sunday 17 July, at the recitation of the Angelus in St Peter’s Square in Rome, Pope Francis confirmed his trip to Canada from 24 to 30 July. “Unfortunately, in Canada, many Christians, including some members of religious institutes, have contributed to the policies of cultural assimilation that, in the past, have severely harmed native communities in various ways,” said the holy father, who thus classified this trip as a “penitential pilgrimage”.

Since May 2021, the discovery of mass graves in the garden of the Kamloops Indian Residential School, British Columbia, has left Canadians shocked. Indeed, between the late 1800s and the first half of the 1900s, about 150,000 indigenous children of the First Nations, Métis and Inuit native peoples were taken from their families, to be initiated into Catholic and white education. It is estimated that at least 4,000 of these children and adolescents died because of illness, hunger, cold, and abuse.

Explaining Canada’s difficult past and what the Friars Minor are doing today is Bro. Pierre Charland, Minister Provincial of the Franciscan Province of the Holy Spirit. “In Canada there are wounds that run deep in the past, but we Friars Minor are trying to promote healing. The first thing we need to do is listen.  What did you experience as First Nations people? Tell us about the children that were taken away”.

Bro. Pierre recounted, with deep sadness in his eyes, that “the Children were taken away from their mothers and fathers, young, and brought to schools to be Europeanized. That was the idea: forget your language, forget who you are and become one of us. That was the objective. Now, they were given an education. Many of them were abused, say, sexually or physically, but not all. Some of them say that ‘it was a bad system, it was horrible, it separated me from my family, it was very cruel, but I did get an education.’ They recognize that they did get an education through this.” Bro. Pierre emphasized the need dialogue with the people and to sincerely talk to them, listen to what they are saying, to connect with them and begin to journey together towards healing and living together as brothers and sisters.

Last May, one year after the discovery of the mass graves, twenty-three people from the Atikamekw First Nations community and twenty-three non-native people gathered in Trois-Rivières, Québec. The brothers of the Trois-Rivières community were invited to participate in the organization and animation of this prophetic meeting.

“During the meeting,” recounts Bro. Pierre, “we lived, in truth and with humility, strong moments of sharing personal stories, but also past traumas: yesterday’s wounds inflicted by residential schools, child abductions; and today’s wounds: racism, addictions, lack of respect”. At the end of the meeting, several people testified that that moment had changed them profoundly. This first experience is undoubtedly an invitation to continue walking together, in the spirit of restorative justice.

“I think that Canada is a young country, and our Franciscan values can make a difference in the Canadian society,” hopes the Canadian Provincial Minister. “I want to see us really present where of the challenges for today are. That is why I am so interested in the First Nations because Canada has a real big challenge, and we have a sad history with the First Nations and I want to see the friars there – in the periphery. I want us to share our lives with the people. I want us to be where there is hurt is, where we can bring healing, where we can build bridges. I think humbly we are doing that, step by step.”