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In Canada, seeking redemption for a long, dark chapter

Ministry strives to overcome — and atone for — nation’s 120-year history of snatching indigenous children from their parents.

DAUPHIN, Manitoba — The boy felt nauseous.

A knot gripped him in the pit of his stomach.

He couldn’t explain the feeling, but it overcame him each time he walked into the long, rectangular building.

Read more stories on Churches of Christ in Canada. Nearly four decades later, the Métis tribal member — who grew up to be a social worker in this rural Canadian community — understands better why the MacKay Residential School caused him such inner turmoil.

“Even if you weren’t the one abused and suffering the genocide and loss of your culture, you absorbed that just by being there,” said the tribal member, who asked to be identified only by his first name, Dave. “They call that the common experience.”

Jamie Harvey can’t escape the ugly history of the building where he and the 30-member Dauphin Church of Christ serve the needy in this town 200 miles northwest of the provincial capital of Winnipeg.

For many in Dauphin, haunting memories remain attached to the 26,000-square-foot building that now houses low-income apartments, a free clothing store, a community food bank, children’s playrooms and the congregation’s worship area.

Jamie Harvey, a member of the Dauphin Church of Christ and full-time administrator for Parkland Crossing, shows off items — some with French labels — in the food pantry. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)

Until the late 1980s, the structure served as an Indian Residential School — one of 139 such facilities nationwide that were built by the government and run by Christian denominations.

“They forced kids on the reservations to leave their families and come to the schools from the middle of August to the end of June every year,” Harvey said, recounting Canada’s 120-year effort at mandatory assimilation. “The point was to force them to learn English and math and remove their language and culture from them.”

Since 2003, the Dauphin congregation — often partnering with other churches and community groups — has worked to redeem the former residential school 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 Harvey, Parkland Crossing’s full-time administrator.

“This is why we do what we do,” he said. “They need to know the love of God and find some level of trust again.”

Roots of distrust

Canola farms and two-lane highways surround Dauphin, a commercial hub that boasts a Wal-Mart, a Super 8 motel, a McDonald’s and a Tim Hortons coffee and doughnut shop.

In the beginning, church leaders purposely avoided putting up a sign tying the congregation to Parkland Crossing’s good works.

As Harvey explained, many people who needed help would not come to a church to get it. Lingering hostility toward organized religion’s role in the residential school system — a dark history for which Canadian leaders have apologized and made monetary reparations in recent years — was just too strong.

Wayne Olson“Trust,” said Wayne Olson, the Dauphin church’s community minister, “is a hard thing to rebuild in people.”

Roots of the distrust can be traced all the way back to the 19th century.

Between 1876 and 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 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 statement added. “The sexual, physical and emotional abuse they suffered is well documented.”

How the journey began

After the government shuttered MacKay Residential School in 1988, a high school associated with Churches of Christ bought the facility.

Decades later, lettering on the floor of the building’s cramped gymnasium still spells out “Western Christian.”

The dream of a Christian teacher named Lillian Torkelson, Western Christian was founded as a residential high school in 1945 in Radville, Saskatchewan.

The school relocated in 1957 to Weyburn, Saskatchewan, where it educated generations of students before the move to Dauphin. After 15 years in Dauphin, Western Christian moved again — this time to Regina, Saskatchewan, where it remained until declining enrollment and beleaguered finances forced its closing in 2012.

When Western Christian left Dauphin, church members who remained in this Canadian Prairies community grappled with an uncertain future, said Harvey, whose parents both worked at Western Christian.

After much prayer and discussion, the small congregation decided to buy the old residential school and turn it into a community outreach center — with a mission to “practice relevant Christianity by providing life’s basic needs.”

“We are not a big group and have not been a big group,” said Olson, a former Western Christian student who managed the school’s cafeteria during its time in Dauphin. “I honestly believe that God left the people here that needed to be here to make this happen, and it’s been a wonderful journey.”

Parkland Crossing, a ministry of the Dauphin Church of Christ, features a free clothing store. The Christian nonprofit focuses on serving the rural Canadian community. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)

‘That’s the past. That’s done’

Church member Vicki Swan coordinates volunteers for Parkland Crossing’s clothing store.

Swan relishes the excitement when first-time shoppers discover that all the shirts, pants, dresses, shoes and other items are free.

“I enjoy listening to the kids or the moms be excited about getting whatever they need,” she said. “They don’t have to pick and choose what they can afford.”

Parkland Crossing’s housing units include 34 dormitory-style rooms for single adults and 20 apartments with up to four bedrooms each. Rental fees set at affordable rates cover 70 percent of the church-sponsored nonprofit’s total budget.

Charlotte MousseauCharlotte Mousseau grew up on the Ebb and Flow First Nation reservation not far from Dauphin. The daughter of a former Indian Residential School student, she has lived at Parkland Crossing for two years.

“They have a lot of resources here,” said Mousseau, who is diabetic and suffers from neuropathy in her legs. “When I moved out here, I decided to apply to this place because of the low-cost rent, and everything is available to you.

“If there is anybody that is ever in trouble — a woman, anybody — there is always hope here,” she said of Parkland Crossing. “I’ve been happy living here. I’ve never had no problems.”

Asked about the facility’s history as a residential school, she replied, “That’s the past. That’s done. Now, it’s just a big rooming house for people to stay.”

But Harvey said church leaders want to do their part to acknowledge the building’s history.

One possibility under consideration: opening an archive room to display writings, documents and pictures from the residential school era.

“We’d create a space,” Harvey said, “where an elder (from a tribe) could come make tea, sit with people and talk about their experiences in the residential school program.”

A children’s playroom at Parkland Crossing. (PHOTO BY BOBBY ROSS JR.)

Second chances

For some, the negative emotions linked to the old brick building on the outskirts of Dauphin remain too raw to reconcile.

But Dave, the former student, said he sees Parkland Crossing making a difference — a big one.

As a social worker, he refers recovering addicts, abused wives and other troubled souls to the facility. And he’s regularly amazed, he said, at the fresh starts they make.

“It’s a very small church, and it’s truly inspirational to me,” Dave said of the Dauphin Church of Christ. “They believe in second chances. They just offer to support people. They are changing that (Indian Residential School) image one person and one family at a time.”

It took years, but Dave’s stomach no longer churns when he approaches the entrance.

“Now, I almost get excited going there,” he said. “Do I think they’ve changed it? Yeah, they truly have changed it. It’s almost hard to explain.”

Filed under: International The Church in Canada

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