Oblates work to enable process of healing, reconciliation
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Indigenous people are coming home today from their historic visit with Pope Francis. But while attention was focused on those high-level meetings, other efforts to promote healing and reconciliation are going on in Canada — mostly unobserved.
This includes the work of Ken Thorson, who directs the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate in Canada.
Thorson, who lives in Ottawa, came into his position just over two years ago. He is responsible for ensuring the digitization and sharing of documents and files held by that order about its history of operating 48 residential schools across Canada.
“It is past time for this work to be done,” said Thorson, his grief and sadness over the horrors of the residential school system, and the involvement of the Oblates, plain to hear in his voice.
“It is clear to me from listening to survivors and Elders that this work is key to enabling the process of healing.”
Under the guidance of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) in Winnipeg, the Oblates are digitizing thousands of records and files and then sending them to the Centre.
So far, over 40,000 items have been shared with the NCTR; three people are working on the digitization and a fourth person will be hired soon to speed up the task.
“We want to make sure that the families, the survivors and the families of the children who didn’t come home have access to their history,” Thorson said.
The digitization work began after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its report in 2015, Thorson said. But it didn’t really pick up speed until the discovery of the graves in Kamloops — a school run by the Oblates.
“That gave it a push,” he said, indicating progress had been too slow until that point. “We began to do the work in earnest.”
Along with sharing documents held in archives in B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Quebec, the Oblates want to give Indigenous people access to any documents or artifacts held in Rome.
In late April, Raymond Frogner, head archivist at the NCTR in Winnipeg, will go to Rome to do an initial assessment. Thorson said he has no idea how many files might be there, or how many might be related to Indigenous schools.
The digitization work is a challenging process, Thorson said.
“Some of the documents are extremely fragile. We want to work quickly, but carefully. But it’s coming along well.”
Along with documents, Thorson said the Oblates are committed to returning artifacts in their possession. This includes carvings, sacred and ceremonial items, and clothing, among other things.
“We are looking to Indigenous communities for guidance on what to do with them,” he said, noting some have been loaned to museums.
The museums are open to returning them, if that is what Indigenous people request, he said.
For Thorson personally, the work is both a burden and a blessing.
It’s a burden because of how his order contributed to the horror of the residential school system.
“We can’t shy away from that story,” he said. “We were part of it. We need to admit and share that history so the truth can come out, so we can contribute to the conversation and opportunity for healing.”
But it’s also a blessing to be part of the effort to promote healing and reconciliation.
“This is my most important ministry at this time. It is clear this is key to the work of reconciliation,” he said.
Thorson’s goal is to give Indigenous people access to their history, especially survivors and their families, and to help people know “what happened to the children who didn’t return home.”
The Oblates offered an official apology for their participation in the residential school system in 1991. Thorson apologized again last year to Tk’emlups te Secwépemc Chief Rosanne Casimir after the discovery of the graves on the grounds of the former residential school, which the Oblates ran from 1890 to 1969.
Those apologies are just the start, he said, something “to live in to.”
While sharing documents and returning artifacts is an important step, Thorson knows healing the relationship between the Oblates and Indigenous people is a long process.
“It will take a significant period of time for healing to occur, but we are committed to doing it, to try to make things right,” he said
That will require a change in the way the order, and the wider Catholic Church itself, engages Indigenous people.
“The thing I have learned the most is we need to be present and listen,” he said. “For too long the churches have set the agenda, set the narrative, determined how to proceed. Now it is our time to listen, not to interject, and let Indigenous people tell us how and when to enter into the conversation.”
John Longhurst was in Rome this week to cover the papal visit by Indigenous people for the Free Press. See coverage of the visit at winnipegfreepress.com/papalvisit