In Canada, seeking redemption for a long, dark chapter
DAUPHIN, Manitoba — The boy felt nauseous. A knot gripped…
At age 6, Brenda Cyr was taken from her family and forced to live at a church-run residential school — part of a 120-year Canadian government effort to assimilate Indigenous children.
In seven years at two such schools, Cyr, now 60, recalls that she was yelled at, beaten and sexually assaulted by a priest.
As an adult, her life spiraled out of control.
“I was into drugs, alcohol. I tried killing myself six times, and I just lived this horrible life.”
“I was into drugs, alcohol. I tried killing myself six times, and I just lived this horrible life,” the Saulteau First Nation tribal member told The Christian Chronicle.
Eventually, Cyr — who attends the Gentle Road Church of Christ in Regina, Saskatchewan — found peace and the willingness to forgive through Jesus.
But the haunting memories linger, for Cyr and many in Canada.
On May 27, the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced that it had found the remains of 215 children buried near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia.
The discovery, confirmed with the help of a ground-penetrating radar specialist, has brought a national reckoning to the United States’ northern neighbor.
“It is a painful reminder of that dark and shameful chapter of our country’s history,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Twitter.
The recent news has galvanized Canada to revisit that history, Gentle Road minister Kevin Vance said of his home country. He likens the massive response to how the video of George Floyd’s death focused America’s attention on police brutality and racial justice last year.
“This is something that we have to deal with,” said Vance, 56, whose inner-city church, planted in 2010, helps Indigenous families overcome poverty and addiction. “We can’t keep shoving this under the carpet. We have to deal with this.”
U.S. boarding schools established after the Civil War provided the blueprint for Indigenous family separation in Canada.
From 1876 to 1996, Canada removed 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children from their homes and forced them to attend residential schools, according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.
The Canadian government’s religious partners included the Anglican Church of Canada, the Presbyterian Church in Canada, the Roman Catholic Church, the United Church of Canada and the Jesuits of English Canada.
“Notwithstanding the good intent and care of many who worked in the schools, it is clear that Indian Residential Schools, in policy and in practice, were an assault on Indigenous families, culture, language and spiritual traditions, and that great harm was done,” those churches said in a 2015 joint statement. “We continue to acknowledge and regret our part in that legacy.
“Those harmed were children, vulnerable, far from their families and communities. The sexual, physical and emotional abuse they suffered is well documented.”
“Those harmed were children, vulnerable, far from their families and communities,” the statement added. “The sexual, physical and emotional abuse they suffered is well documented.”
One of 139 such schools was the MacKay Residential School in Dauphin, Manitoba, a small town 200 miles northwest of the provincial capital of Winnipeg. The school remained open until the late 1980s.
Since 2003, the Dauphin Church of Christ — often partnering with other churches and community groups — has worked to redeem the former residential school’s building and show a different view of Christianity to aboriginal Canadians.
At the old school site, the Church of Christ operates a housing, food and clothing ministry called Parkland Crossing — a name tied to the Parkland region of Manitoba and a Scripture in Jeremiah where the Lord says, “Stand at the crossroads.”
Indigenous people comprise over 80 percent of those helped, said Jamie Harvey, Parkland Crossing’s full-time administrator.
“This is why we do what we do,” Harvey told the Chronicle in 2017. “They need to know the love of God and find some level of trust again.”
After the remains were located in Kamloops, flags were flown at half-mast throughout Canada, and makeshift memorials featuring children’s shoes or moccasins popped up at former residential schools and the Parliament building in Ottawa.
More than 250 pairs of shoes were left on the front steps at Parkland Crossing.
“The symbolism of that display and that tribute to those stolen children is that those shoes are empty, and they shouldn’t be,” Harvey said.
“Those children,” he added, “should have had kids of their own, should have had grandkids, should have been teaching their languages to their communities and their offspring.”
Kelly Carter, lead minister for the Calgary Church of Christ in Alberta, said Parkland Crossing’s effort at redemption makes him proud.
“I can’t hold back the tears, actually,” said Carter, whose own church helps Indigenous homeless people, “because it’s so wonderful that our churches are doing something so positive in light of all the horrible things that have happened.”
A smaller memorial with shoes and teddy bears sprouted at Alberta Bible College in Calgary.
That Restoration Movement institution has two students who are Stoney Nakoda tribal members.
“I have not seen this outpouring of care for the Indigenous people in Canada since I moved here,” Stanley Helton, the Bible college’s president and a 12-year resident of Canada, said of the coast-to-coast response.
Deanna Moar, a 28-year-old Dauphin resident, organized the memorial at Parkland Crossing.
The Métis tribal member said her grandfather Clifford Sanderson, now 78, ran away from a residential school when he was 13.
For years, he hid in a wooded area with his family, relying on fishing, hunting and trapping to survive, she said.
“It was a hard life, but he said he’d rather live like that than go back to a church where he’d be beaten every day.”
“It was a hard life,” Moar told the Chronicle, “but he said he’d rather live like that than go back to a church where he’d be beaten every day.”
Moar said she is Roman Catholic and does not blame God for what happened.
She has received food from Parkland Crossing’s pantry and said she appreciates the Church of Christ ministry’s service to the community. The memorial shoes will become a part of the ministry’s clothing giveaway program and benefit needy families.
An estimated 6,000 children died amid abuse and neglect at the residential schools, according to the truth and reconciliation report. But the exact number of deaths is unknown. Many in Canada — including Moar — are demanding that the government examine all the former school grounds for mass graves.
“These children don’t deserve to just be laid in the ground and forgotten,” Moar said. “They deserve a proper grave with a proper headstone — every single one of them.”
Back in Regina, a city of 230,000 that is the provincial capital of Saskatchewan, neither Cyr nor fellow Gentle Road church member Kenilee Pelletier was shocked by the Kamloops discovery.
Even as a girl, Cyr said, she heard about graveyards at the residential schools.
“It was very sad, mind you, that they found this graveyard with these kids,” she said. “But for myself, I’ve learned to forgive. I’ve learned to forgive the government, all the priests and all that. … And that’s why I say I’m at peace.”
In recent years, Cyr, now a grandmother, finally finished high school and started taking college classes.
Pelletier, 22, is a Plains Cree tribal member.
She’s part of the first generation of her family not forced into a residential school.
“I was very heartbroken,” she said of the remains found in British Columbia. “But I also knew it wasn’t an isolated incident. It is Canada’s history.”
Pelletier said the news evoked images of her own relatives who died in residential schools — relatives she never got to meet — and made her mentally numb.
Two of her uncles took their own lives at the schools, she said.
A third uncle was dragged to his death by a horse, she said. Just a few years ago, the family received an official letter apologizing for 11-year-old Allan’s death and blaming it on neglect.
Pelletier is a University of Regina student majoring in English with a minor in Indigenous studies. She recently wrote a poem in which she reflected on the cold nature of the letter.
“A little boy dragged, partly dismembered?” says one verse, which she read aloud through tears. “He was a boy with a conscience, who felt pain. But Your loved one will be remembered.”
Vance, the Gentle Road minister, fought back his own tears after listening to Cyr and Pelletier tell their stories in a Zoom interview with the Chronicle.
“I’m ashamed of all the racism and genocide that we concocted and that we did it in the name of Jesus. That’s just unbelievable to me.”
“I’m ashamed as a White Christian. I’m ashamed of what we did,” said Vance, a graduate and former president of the now-defunct Western Christian College and High School in Regina.
“I’m ashamed of all the racism and genocide that we concocted and that we did it in the name of Jesus. That’s just unbelievable to me,” he added. “I’m thankful that these ladies know a lot about forgiveness.”
He’s unsure, he said, why they pay him the slightest attention, much less listen to him talk about Jesus.
“But it also does propel me,” said Vance, who focuses on doing what he can to correct the injustices.
The minister sees a need, first of all, to listen “humbly and deeply to what’s happened to Indigenous people.”
“No. 2 is real action,” he said. “We still have (tribal) reserves with no clean drinking water. That’s just ridiculous.”
While many Indigenous people view Jesus as part of the White man’s religion, Cyr and Pelletier said they look to the Lord to bring healing to their people and their land.
Pelletier traces her faith in God to her mother and grandmother.
“They just always told me, ‘You have to forgive. You have to pray. You have to understand that you’re more than what your past will ever define you as.’”
BOBBY ROSS JR. is Editor-in-Chief of The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected].
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