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A 1940 photo shows indigenous students and a nun in a girls’ classroom at Cross Lake Indian Residential School in Manitoba. (CNS photo/Library and Archives Canada, Reuters) The top of the wikuom is just visible from the retirement residence of the Sisters of Charity. Its off-white canvas approximates the birch bark the Mi’kmaq people used to construct their homes when they ranged across what are now the Maritime Provinces of eastern Canada. Pine poles hold the structure up and leave an opening to release smoke from ceremonial fires. Inside the wikuom (the Mi’kmaq word for what you may have known as “wigwam”), Catherine Martin, a filmmaker and Mi’kmaw activist, leads ritual prayers, burning sage and sweetgrass, cedar and tobacco, and teaching visitors about her people’s way.

The wikuom is not a relic of the past. It is an invocation of a future in which First Nations are respected as equals in Canada.

Last spring, when the wikuom was erected at the University of Mount St. Vincent, Ms. Martin held a visiting chair in the women’s studies department at the school, founded by the Sisters of Charity in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1873. The prayers she offered were for the victims and survivors of Canada’s centuries-long drive to eradicate its native peoples—in particular, the Mi’kmaq children forcibly taken from their families on reserves and sent to the government-sponsored boarding school the Sisters of Charity staffed for close to four decades. Former students of the Shubenacadie Residential School tell of being beaten, physically scarred for speaking their native language, forbidden from communicating with siblings, humiliated for wetting the bed and whipped with leather cat tails if they attempted to escape. A classroom at the Shubenacadie Residential School, circa 1940 (Sisters of Charity Halifax Archives) As the nation has embarked on a process of truth-seeking and reconciliation to confront the crimes of the residential school system and the racism behind it, religious orders, churches and other nonindigenous Canadians have had to face their culpability. Even after it signed the United Nations Declaration of Universal Human Rights in response to the horrors of World War II, Canada wrenched children from their mothers and sent them to be stripped of their culture at schools administered by Christian churches. The sisters whose order staffed the Shubenacadie school and another in British Columbia are among the groups confronting this history and trying to imagine what reconciliation means. They are learning that to write a better future, they have to edit their understanding of the past. “To learn that it was racist, that it wasn’t helping—it was very hard for some of our sisters,” says Sister Donna Geernaert, president of the order when the reconciliation process began. “So part of what I’m trying to do is make sense of the past and face it.”

“To learn that [the school] was racist, that it wasn’t helping—it was very hard for some of our sisters.”

It is such a Christian word: reconciliation. Can a private sacrament, a movement between soul and God, be adapted to heal a division in the polis? How does a religious community embark on a spiritual endeavor with people they have harmed? These are questions Sister Joan O’Keefe, current president of the Sisters of Charity of Halifax, is puzzling over.

“My goal is to continue to build those relationships and to respond to the invitation to be part of the process,” Sister O’Keefe says. “We colluded in a racist system,” she says of her order’s role in running the residential schools. “It’s not enough to ask for forgiveness. The point is to listen to their stories…. You can’t reconcile if […]

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