BOS 06 22 2022 doublesize
On my first visit to an elder who attended the United Church at Cape Croker, she began by showing me some of her quill work. Among the pieces she had started was the top of a quill basket. It was quite a large oval with a lovely image of a moose. When I finished my time at Cape, she had finished the basket and gifted it to me. I was stunned by the gift.

But in that first visit, I was more stunned by the story of residential school that she told me. I knew that she spoke Ojibwe well, but what I learned was how she had kept her language. She and another girl would hide under the covers whispering in their language while a third kept a look out for the matron. When she finally went home, her grandmother looked at her and said to her mother in Ojibwe that she would be unable to talk to her granddaughter. As the elder told the story sixty some years later, she looked as proud as her younger self as she said, “and I spoke up in my language, and my grandmother was so happy.”

I saw such determination in this woman. But in her story, I also heard the lament of a broken community. The grandmother had experienced the loss of connection to other grandchildren and with this child’s return expected another. The older woman’s joy was a gift, but still spoke of so much loss.

Another deep shock for me was that until I worked at the church at Cape in the late 90’s, I knew nothing about residential schools. I had been on the edge of the church’s journey with indigenous peoples for years, but still knew nothing about these schools. In the 80s, I had had the opportunity to get to know people from Kahnawake. I learned about men who had gone to fight in the Vietnam war. I learned about the strength of Mohawk women. But I was enough on the edge of the work toward reconciliation that I did not learn about residential schools.

I had done a masters degree at a seminary and four years of training for ministry. I don’t remember ever hearing about residential schools. I pray that no minister finishing their training now can say the same thing.

While I was working at Cape, the trial of a former worker at the school in Port Alberni was going on in British Columbia. I learned about the abuse that was endemic in the system. I heard that the lawyers who work for our denomination had argued that it would be a bad move for our church to apologize for the residential school system. By then I knew enough to say that if the church chose not to apologize, I would not remain in it. I don’t know if I would have carried through with that feeling, because before long, the national executive did apologize, not just for the individuals who abused these children but for the system.

Recently, Pope Francis apologized for the actions of individuals not the system. But the system was the problem. The system made the abuse possible. The stated purpose was to remove the Indian from the child. That meant the staff and teachers began with a lack of respect for whom the child was as they arrived at the school. Everything the child brought with them, including language and culture, was forcibly taken away. The use of force was expected.

The school was not a natural community. There were many more children than adults. The relationships were therefore not the normal social interactions of a complete society.

A few years after I worked at Cape, I met a woman who, after high school, had left her farm and rural community to work as a dorm mother at an indian residential school for a year. In her early seventies, this woman was still an awkward insecure person. At eighteen, far from home for the first time, what skills did she have to parent the children in her care?

Personal contacts opened my eyes to this shameful part of our history. Not everyone will have those opportunities. But there are lots of places to read the stories of indigenous people and what they experienced at these schools. The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation is a good place to view the school records ( There are books where people tell their stories. It is important that we each make the effort to understand the intergenerational trauma that these schools caused.

Cathy Hird lives on the traditional territory of the Saugeen Ojibway Nation