On June 11, 2008, the Prime Minister of Canada offered an apology to Aboriginal peoples for the government’s historical role in the residential schools system. This act reinforced a process already underway through the work of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, an agency created to foster a delicate process of healing, and encourage collective community narratives about the impact made by the schools on former students.
Recognizing that circumstances may exist in some local Baha’i communities to support the work of the Commission, the Baha’i Community of Canada’s national governing council, the National Spiritual Assembly, wrote to Baha’i communities across the country in June of 2010, asking them to carefully consider what they might offer to the Commission for the reconciliation process.
One of the affirmative responses came from the Baha’is of La Pêche, Quebec, located just north of Canada’s national capital region, currently the home of Louise Profeit-LeBlanc and her husband, Bob Leblanc. Though relatively small in numbers, the Baha’is of La Pêche consulted and decided that an opportunity to learn more about residential schools and the reconciliation process would be ideal.
Louise was herself a survivor, one of some 80,000 Canadians who experienced first-hand the residential school system for Aboriginal children once operated by the Canadian government. Though many residential schools were being operated by religious orders before Canada’s Confederation in 1867, the government adopted the residential school model for educating Aboriginal children in the 1880s. Mrs. Profeit-Leblanc was raised in the Nacho Nyak Dun First Nation in the Yukon. While in her primary grades she attended a boarding school and later, in her early teens, went to Yukon Hall residential school in Whitehorse.
A vivid childhood memory for Mrs. Profeit-Leblanc still lingers: being withdrawn from the boarding school by her grandmother who said that she was being “taught more about ‘sin’ than learning about God.” The parents of many, many other residential school children across Canada, however, were never afforded the option of taking their children home.
Employing a policy of aggressive assimilation that recognized children to be more impressionable than adults, the schools were intended to strip Aboriginal children of their traditional customs and reform them for Canada’s colonial reflection of European values.Children were forced to learn English or French and were taught skills in school that the government once considered productive for a rapidly modernizing society, while believing that Aboriginal culture could not, and would not, adapt to societal changes on its own.
The repression of the children’s Aboriginal culture was severe. Children caught speaking their first language or practicing ancestral traditions were punished. Substandard conditions, separation from family, and many cases of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse were suffered by the children with repercussions of devastation often extending into the lives of their descendants. Though the schools began to close in the 1970s, the last residential school remained in operation until 1996.
In order to respond to the National Spiritual Assembly’s encouragement for Baha’i communities to take steps that would represent gestures of support to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Louise and Bob’s community arranged a simple social evening that included prayers, drumming, a sweet grass smudging ceremony, and time for questions and answers at a local home. Also featured was a viewing of the documentary film, “Against the Grain – The Legacy of Indian Residential Schools,” written and directed by Curtis Mandeville, a Métis from the Northwest Territories.
Some thirty Baha’is from La Pêche and the surrounding area attended, including Louise and Vicki Grant who both answered questions as survivors but, more importantly, stressed the need for reconciliation and how it impacts all Canadians. The relationship between Canada and Aboriginal peoples has suffered as a result of the residential schools system. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has indicated that everyone in the relationship, whether survivors from the school or non-Aboriginal Canadians, are still feeling the consequences and, before healing can begin, the reconciliation process is crucial. Central to reconciliation is education.
“What was the most stunning and shocking to the Baha’is that evening was the sheer number of schools that were in Canada,” said Mrs. Profeit-Leblanc.
“150,000 children were taken from their families and placed in residential schools across the nation. Some of these children were flown out of their communities to distant places for the entire year while others were placed in schools just down the road from their traditional lands and homes to work on farms or in the textile industry.”
At the conclusion of the evening, the Baha’is were so moved by the presentation and discussion that a recommendation was made for a similar event to be offered for the education of the local public of the Outaouais region.
Louise Profeit-Leblanc and Marilee Rhody then contacted Rev. Giselle Gilfillan of the local Wakefield United Church to suggest collaboration between the Baha’is of La Pêche and her congregation for a public meeting. Rev. Gilfillan, who has served in La Pêche for thirteen years, was delighted with the opportunity to bring the issue of residential schools reconciliation to her congregation and offered her church as the venue. A date of January 18, 2011, was set for the meeting.
The three women expected no more than 20 people to attend; they were stunned when approximately 100 people of diverse backgrounds filled the small church. Aboriginal youth and Elders (including survivors from residential schools) from the Kitigan Zibi territory of the Algonquin First Nation some 80 kilometres distant were in attendance along with residents of La Pêche. Prayers were said in Algonquin, French, and English.
To facilitate an atmosphere of open consultation and mutual respect for healing, a talking circle, (customary for First Nations people) was created with children’s chairs facing north, south, east, and west. Flags of red, white, yellow and black to symbolize all the nations of the world encircled spruce and cedar boughs. Upon each of the children’s chairs laid a small feather in remembrance of those who died in residential schools and never returned home.
Viola Thomas addressed the gathering on behalf of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, expressing how pleased she was to see non-Native peoples in attendance. Survivors shared stories, though the amount of courage summoned to do so was evident. Listening with their hearts, there were many tears shed through the empathy and sympathy of those present, some hearing stories that had never been shared openly before.
“It was a bit of a gamble to have the event in a church given its association with residential schools,” said Mrs. Profeit-Leblanc, acknowledging some may have decided against attending because of residential schools’ past association with religious orders.
“One Elder who is a survivor from Kitigan Zibi drove around town for half an hour before he could persuade himself to come in. When I saw him, he looked into my eyes and said, ‘I’m here because you invited me, Louise.’ He came out of his deep sense of respect and honor for my inviting him. That just broke my heart.”
Given the great interest and spirit shared at the January meeting, another meeting is being held in La Pêche on April 30. This meeting however, rather than being one of solemnity and tears, will aim to honour the journey, celebrating Aboriginal peoples and cultures that have persevered and survived past oppression with those who wish to support a better future. The event will include arts such as the sharing of music, dancing, painting, crafts, and youth projects, all with the theme of reconciliation.
“It will be a culture of learning, consulting on next steps,” said Mrs. Profeit-LeBlanc. Still, the most compelling significance of these gatherings for her, both as a survivor and listening to the survivors’ stories, has been the numbers of children affected by the Aboriginal residential schools’ devastation.
“I know that some of those attending the meetings were shocked at the vast number of schools there were in Canada and how many little children were taken away from their parents. The numbers were staggering even for me! Children were parented by people who had no real love for them. How do you reconcile what happened here?”
Nevertheless, Mrs. Profeit-LeBlanc has found some peace in what grew naturally from the compassion of a small but caring community after her introduction to the Baha’i Faith several years ago.
“[These gatherings] allow us to get closer to this situation in a posture of humility, walking side-by-side with this special community towards their healing and destiny, and at the same time involving all of us to become participants of a greater reconciliation involving the whole planet.”