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Catholic Squamish Nation Elder calls on Pope to apologize, visit site of Kamloops Residential School

Last Updated Jun 13, 2021 at 11:24 am PDT

The former Kamloops Indian Residential School is seen on Tk’emlups te Secwépemc First Nation in Kamloops, B.C., on May 27, 2021. The remains of 215 children have been found buried on the site, the First Nation said. (Andrew Snucins/The Canadian Press)

Deacon Rennie Nahanee is a Squamish Nation elder and says he's expecting more than an apology from Pope Francis

Nahanee says the Pope has to visit Kamloops as well

Former chief of the Tk'emlúps nation adds before healing and forgiving, the truth must be acknowledged

NORTH VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — The former coordinator of the First Nations Ministry for the Archdiocese of Vancouver says Indigenous Catholics would benefit from being able to express their faith in their native language.

Deacon Rennie Nahanee, who works at St. Paul’s church in North Vancouver, says it’s time to incorporate their customs and culture into mass.

“The reason I became a deacon was so that I could make a difference bringing the faith to Indigenous people. The language, the scripture, the Gospel.”

The Squamish Nation elder says he was angry and sad when he learned the remains of 215 children have been found on the grounds of a former residential school in Kamloops.

“Because they’re children and they’re in an unmarked grave, and nobody knows anything about them. We don’t know their names or where they came from, and I believe they need to be returned back to their communities.

“Our priest did give me an opportunity to speak about Kamloops and what had taken place up there because the Homily was for the body and blood of Christ. I was telling the people that if you have something in your heart. You really believe those words that you heard today, well, then you have to care for other people more. If you’re a follower of Christ, you should be like Christ. Have compassion, forgiveness, love. Be a servant. You don’t just come to church and stay there for an hour, listen to a real nice story and then go home again and come back next Sunday. It has to be more than that. If they lived their faith and believed in God and everything that he’s all about, then we would be in a happier place.”

The 69-year-old never attended a residential school but says both his parents and some older siblings did.

“It’s still with all the survivors. Whatever their parents went through, the children suffered. Through alcoholism and anger or divorce.”

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He tells NEWS 1130 he’s been a deacon for five years and the residential school tragedy in Kamloops has not made him question his faith.

“Never. Because, when I was growing up, a lot of our elders in that church down here –St. Paul’s– were joyful serving the Lord. Most of them had all come from the residential school just up the road.”

However, he does believe change needed now is the opposite of what happened decades ago when the federal government enlisted the Catholic Church to run residential schools.

“To take the ‘Indian’ out of the child. Why don’t we have parts of the mass in our own Squamish language, so that it’s more meaningful to us? We are able to express our faith a lot better. I believe that’s the road we’ve been travelling for a few years now with the rite that I’m proposing. It would be similar to the Amazonian rites where they would have a layperson that would be able to lead the mass and they wouldn’t be able to bless the wine or the host into the body and blood of Christ, but they could still lead the mass and give out Communion that was blessed by the priest. To keep the church alive, you have to engage the people in those ministries that are really meaningful.”

He suggests ministers should be delivering Communion to Indigenous Catholics who can’t physically attend mass.

“The shut-ins on the Reserve. Those who are too sick or too elderly to come to the church. So, I think maybe the Bishops of Canada might start leaning a little more towards what I’m proposing –some of them. To others, it may seem a little bit too radical.”

Asked if he has support from the Archdiocese of Vancouver, Nahanee says there’s not much time left before Archbishop J. Michael Miller retires in July, but changes similar to what he’s proposing have already been implemented in Africa, India and South America.

Read More: Vancouver archbishop apologizes for Catholic Church’s role in residential schools

“We want to be treated as equals.”

As the world waits to hear more from the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc nation about the remains found on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, Nahanee says he expects Pope Francis to not only apologize, but personally visit Kamloops.

“The Catholic Church was responsible for that school. Indigenous people of this country are not going to let this go. Word of this has already gone across Canada and different parts of the world too.”

He also wants all the children who ran away from that school to be remembered and honoured because their remains may never be found.

“They got lost in the forest or they were crossing an icy stream and they sank in and got washed down the river. We need a memorial for those unknown children.”

Nahanee believes the remains of the children who are identified need to be returned to their communities because that would have been the Christian thing to do.

Related Article: Pope’s address of residential schools falls short, no mention of survivors: Advocate

An apology is “just one component of a myriad of issues”

Meanwhile, a former chief of the Tk’emlups nation is also expecting Pope Francis to visit the grounds of the former school once the pandemic is over.

Manny Jules, who is now the chief commissioner of the First Nations Tax Commission, says a pending apology from the Vatican is only part of the healing process.

“The way I interpreted the Pope’s message, he sent out thoughts and prayers, he wanted his bishops to begin to walk with us. They want to work with my community which ultimately has to lead to, I would hope, a memorandum of understanding to resolve these issues, then one day a papal visit at least to Canada with a formal apology to those of us that attended residential schools right across this country.”

Jules attended the day school in Kamloops during the 1960s, when Catholic priests and nuns still ran it.

He was chief of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation between 1984 and 2000.

Before Pope Francis can make an apology, Jules says other steps must first be taken.

“Getting the bishops one –to recommend that he apologize, two is that what we’re asking the bishops here in Canada –their association– is that we start to work together to resolve all of the issues between our communities and the Catholic Church. Even though the apology’s a critical component of it, it’s just one component of a myriad of issues we have to discuss with the church.”

Jules tells NEWS 1130 many family members are still devout followers, but before others can heal and forgive, the truth must be acknowledged.

He’s also not expecting Francis to visit Kamloops any time soon.

“We first have to get rid of the pandemic that’s infecting all of us worldwide. I would anticipate at the earliest the papacy would be looking at is 2022 –more likely 2023. You know, I’m guessing. Of course, it would be of great symbolic importance for him to come to my community. My mother is a strong believer. My grandmother was probably the strongest Catholic that I knew and she passed away in 1969.”

Jules adds the Catholic Church has been a presence in the Kamloops area since the 1850s, so many First Nations people have names given to them by the priests and nuns who ran the school.

As the chief commissioner of the First Nations Tax Commission, he is also demanding action from Ottawa to correct past wrongs.

He says the federal government must be held accountable for setting up programs in which Indigenous people were stripped of their right to govern themselves.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available for anyone affected by residential schools. You can call 1-866-925-4419 24 hours a day to access emotional support and services.