OMI brother apologizes for abuse but says not all involved were guilty of wrongdoing
By Nathan Rumohr
The B.C. Catholic
Former students from Indian residential schools were emotional when they shared their experiences at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's regional event in Victoria April 13-14.
The emotion they expressed was anger when Brother Tom Cavanaugh, OMI, a former teacher at a residential school, spoke about some of the positive influences the schools had on native communities.
"What I experienced over the six years at Christie Residential School was a staff of native and non-native adults working together to provide as much as possible a safe, loving environment for the children attending Christie School," he said to a chorus of boos and profane language.
Brother Cavanaugh gave his speech on the event's second day. "Was it a perfect situation? No!" he retorted.
He said it was difficult for the 120 children who were away from their families for 10 months, but he didn't see another viable alternative for native children to receive a good education.
Brother Cavanaugh tried to shed light on some of the positive things residential schools did for their students. He said the staff of Christie Residential School, which included five Oblates, six Immaculate Heart sisters, and eight natives, loved and cared for the children, in Grades 1-8.
"For me Christie School at Kakawis was more like a home away from home where staff and children bonded, providing a living situation which I felt very happy and proud to be a part of."
The native people in the crowd continued to verbally attack. They shouted that he was lying about the residential school experience. This prompted Justice Murray Sinclair, chairman of the TRC, to interject and ask the crowd to respect all parties telling their stories.
"I thank Justice Sinclair for saying 'We are here to listen,'" Brother Cavanaugh said later. "I wasn't surprised by the negative reaction."
Justice Sinclair did not return calls from The B.C. Catholic before press time.
Brother Cavanaugh felt the TRC presentations were more about complaints and apologies than expressing any of the positive aspects of residential schools.
But former residential school student Archie Little said the Catholic-run school he went to scarred him for life. "I have suffered from the residential schools for 63 years," said the elder. "They took my brothers and sisters away."
Little described his experience, telling of sexual abuse and punishment dished out by religious brothers.
Brother Cavanaugh admitted some residential schools abused children. He said this was made obvious by former students' testimonies as well as by the convictions of Oblates and of former employees.
"The abuse of anyone, especially children, is a sad and difficult legacy for all of us to deal with. In the 1980s the Oblate Conference of Canada made a public apology on behalf of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate for wrongdoing committed by any of our membership to First Nations children who attended residential schools which were under the order's administration."
However, Brother Cavanaugh felt this apology should suffice, and he thought there was no need for him to apologize again.
When Bishop Richard Gagnon of Victoria spoke, before Brother Cavanaugh, he apologized on behalf of his diocese.
"I have grown to understand more and more the reality of residential schools and their impact on First Nations people from one generation to the next," the bishop said.
He added that he had once been ignorant of the damage residential schools caused aboriginals. He thought the situation of aboriginals where he once lived in North Vancouver had been better than in some other places.
The bishop also expressed his shame about the Catholics who inflicted harm on the children entrusted to their care in the schools.
"I acknowledge and regret that these abuses occurred, as well as the separation of family members which contributed to a breakdown of family life and loss of traditions. As the bishop, I apologize for the harm done and for what the Church contributed toward the painful legacy of residential schools."
Brother Cavanaugh also noted that the scandal has caused a rift between native people and the Church.
"Many of our men are still working with the First Nations at various TRC sessions, as well as Spirit sessions, hoping to bring about healing for all concerned.
"The Oblates desire healing for the abused and for all touched by the past breach of trust. It is our hope that together we can continue to build a better society."