With all the excitement and speculation about 15th-century papal bulls and the reopening of old wounds in residential schools associated with the “penitential pilgrimage” Pope Francis is making to Canada this week, less attention has been given to a development in a story about a catastrophe that the indigenous people of Grassy Narrows in Ontario have continued to endure for more than half a century.
As the Pope met with several thousand former residential school students and survivors of abuse at the site of the former Ermineskin Residential School in the Alberta community of Maskwacis on Monday, the Trudeau government announced a $68.9 million treatment facility. for mercury poisoning. victims of pollution of the Wabigoon River by a Dryden pulp and paper mill.
The commercial walleye fishery, the economic base of the community, closed in 1970. The commitment to build the “Mercury Care Home” was first made five years ago after decades of protests and a 2016 study by researchers Japanese that found that 90 percent of the Ojibwe in the community exhibited symptoms of mercury poisoning.
Mercury poisoning produces neurological disorders including cognitive delays, along with seizures and numbness in the hands and feet. The care center is expected to open sometime next year.
“I have come to your homelands to communicate my pain to you in person, to implore God’s forgiveness, healing and reconciliation, to express my closeness and to pray with you and for you,” Pope Francis told his hosts in Maskwacis.
Various religious orders of the Catholic Church operated most of Canada’s 139 residential schools on behalf of the federal government for more than a century. Approximately 150,000 children attended the schools, which were chronically underfunded and notorious for sexual and physical abuse. Attendance was made compulsory in amendments to the Indian Act during the 1920s, and thousands of children never made it home, mainly due to extremely high mortality rates from epidemic diseases, particularly tuberculosis.
The pope’s apology builds on apologies from other religious institutions and the federal government during the Harper years, and an apology from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last June.
Building on earlier apologies for the forced relocation of Inuit communities to the Far North, in 2019 Trudeau apologized for “the federal government’s management of Arctic tuberculosis” from the 1940s to the 1960s. Trudeau promised a series of initiatives in health and housing, and efforts to locate the graves of Inuit who were sent south for treatment but never returned home. “We are also providing money to mark graves and create plaques,” Trudeau said.
Trudeau’s apology came after a Public Health Agency of Canada report found rates of tuberculosis among Inuit that were 290 times higher than those of non-native people born in Canada. last November, the Nunavut government declared a tuberculosis outbreak. Last month, after a review of the federal action since Trudeau’s apology, Chandrima Chakraborty and Pushpita Samina of McMaster University concluded: “So far, however, not much seems to have changed.”
Federal funding for community assessments appears to have dried up. Inuit tuberculosis patients are still being flown south for treatment. “Rigorous efforts are now urgently needed to ensure that the pandemic does not reverse the progress made in the belated fight to end TB,” Chakraborty and Pushpita Samina wrote.
On the heels of shocking headlines about a “mass grave” discovered at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School on May 27 last year, Trudeau and Carolyn Bennett, who was then Crown Minister for Indian Relations, insisted on that Pope Francis should issue a more explicit apology than Pope Benedict XVI’s 2009 expression of regret about the role of Catholic institutions in running boarding schools.
Never mind that the head of T’Kemlups, Roseanne Casimir, never claimed that a mass grave had been discovered, and never mind that Casimir told me last week that much work remains to be done before we can conclusively determine whether the anomalies detected by ground penetrating radar. near the school are the children’s graves.
While Trudeau lowered the flags on every federal building in Canada and held them at half-staff for months, attention turned to the responsibility of the Catholic Church for the damage caused by residential schools. The result: dozens of churches vandalized and burned to the ground across the country, and a broken commitment by the Trudeau government that was conveniently overlooked.
When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued its “calls to action” in 2015, Trudeau said he would act on all of them. Several of those calls to action were directly related to solving the mystery surrounding the “missing children” of the residential school years and properly marking and commemorating residential school graves. When the “mass grave” story broke six years later, the Trudeau government had spent less than $7 million of the $33.8 million set aside to fulfill that promise.
Since then, the federal government has found about $300 million to carry out initiatives related to residential school graves.
So apologies are fine. And there will be plenty of fascinating research and debate to emerge from renewed demands that the Vatican renounce 15th-century papal bulls during the Spanish era of exploration, never mind that Canada’s Supreme Court has found no merit in assessing their relationship to the “doctrine of discovery” that underlies the assumption and affirmation of the Crown’s sovereignty in Canada.
After all these decades, there are Ojibwe people in Grassy Narrows who are still sick and dying from mercury poisoning. In Nunavut, Inuit continue to get sick and die from tuberculosis.
Terry Glavin He is an author and journalist.