The other day, my friend Ada and I were discussing the discovery of Indigenous children’s undocumented remains outside of the former residential school in Kamloops.
Ada is passionate about the Arctic and through her studies, research, and work is involved in cooperating with Inuit in the north with sensitivity, respect, and mutuality.
I could tell the news had shaken her and so I asked whether she had ever been to a First Nations cemetery.
“Yes, twice,” she said.
It was 2018 and Ada had just completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Victoria. As a member of the Catholic Students’ Association, she joined four other students, led by university chaplain, former Anglican-turned-Catholic priest, Fr. Dean Henderson, on a cultural mission exchange to a First Nations reserve in British Columbia.
Ada explained that Fr. Henderson had already been running mission trips in and around Vancouver Island for a least the past several years and that this would be her third mission to a First Nations community with him.
Fr. Dean Henderson, whose personal testimony is available here, had been assigned to serve as part-time chaplain and part-time parish priest. Since the Pacheedaht First Nation is within the parish boundary, he wanted to develop a relationship with that community after his appointment.
Ada is not too sure how Fr. Henderson’s rapport began, but presumably he got in contact with the Pacheedaht Chief and offered the Catholic students to do some practical service for the community.
The Chief told Fr. Henderson that the cemetery on the reserve had become sorely neglected and that the students could be of help by picking weeds, mowing the lawn, cleaning moss off of the crosses – that sort of thing.
The Catholic students arrived with Fr. Henderson and were received warmly by the Chief.
“On the first day, the Chief gave us a tour of the reserve. He was very friendly and hospitable in a way that put all of us at ease,” Ada remembers.
Next, they met two siblings from the community who showed the students the poor condition of the cemetery and expressed their intention to restore it. The idea was for the students to spend a week doing some initial grunt work, so the community could then take over. The siblings then gave direction to the students about what needed to be done.
“Every day we went to the graveyard, we began with a prayer – that we would be respectful, do good work, and remain mindful of what we were doing,” Ada said.
It had been a tough year and Ada was looking forward to doing some manual labour that was also a kind of practical service that naturally summons up solemnity and reverence.
“For me, that felt really important… taking care of these graves of people who I didn’t know,” Ada reflected.
She told me she did her utmost to be intentional and that this deepened the meaningfulness of the experience.
“I have a vivid memory of brushing the moss off the cross,” Ada told me. “For some, there was so much moss that you could not read the names or dates until we cleaned them.”
By tending to the Pacheedaht cemetery, the Catholic students sought, by their modest contribution, to bring restoration to the memory of the deceased by uncovering and revealing their identities through the care they showed to their final resting place.
In addition to tending to the cemetery, the students had several other opportunities for cultural exchange.
A few days in, the Chief invited the students on a boat and took them crabbing. Each student was given a different role – measuring the crabs, assessing which ones to put back, killing the crabs, breaking off their legs, etc.
The following day, the students joined the community for a feast.
“We brought all of the crabs to the community hall to boil them in some industrial pots and then we had a big potluck,” Ada reminisced.
On another day, the students hung out with the kids, playing games and doing activities in a gym after school.
Sometimes it did not seem to the students that they were doing all that much but, particularly, since this was her third mission, Ada thinks that all of these experiences have contributed to her sense that being present is really the best thing to do for reconciliation, for healing and fostering relationships.
“Especially in light of recent events, I am constantly thinking: how can Catholics improve relationships with Indigenous communities?” Ada told me. “I wish I had more frequent occasions like these missions and I also wish more people could have these kinds of opportunities, too.”
Cultural mission exchanges, as Fr. Henderson calls them, have tremendous potential for enabling new generations to contribute to improving Indigenous-Catholic relations concretely. Instead of merely learning about residential schools as an historical abstraction, visits to reserves with a listening posture can invite the stories of elders, practical service projects undertaken in a cooperative spirit of shared responsibility, and sincere friendships which are the ideal basis for cooperation toward the common good.
Photo: Members of the Catholic Students’ Association lend a hand in the cemetery of the Pacheedaht First Nation during a 2018 Cultural Mission Exchange at the invitation of the Chief