Memorial to residential schools removed from Dunnville church steps 

By J.P. Antonacci

Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

DINNVILLE, ONT-A Dunnville woman who put five pairs of shoes on the steps of the town’s Catholic church to honour the victims of residential schools was dismayed to learn the parish priest had removed them.

“I was so angry,” said Sammie, who asked that her last name not be used to protect her children’s privacy.

Sammie said her late father spent eight years at a residential school in Kenora, so in the wake of the remains of 215 children being discovered on the grounds of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., she wanted to honour all Indigenous children who were taken from their families.

“Our Native culture was stripped away from us,” she said. “I’m an Indian who’s here because they couldn’t get rid of all of us. And they never will.”

She put the shoes on the steps of St. Michael the Archangel to highlight the Catholic church’s role in administering the infamous schools.

Fr. Sunny Sebastian said he removed the shoes Monday evening because they blocked the entrance to the church and posed a tripping hazard for elderly parishioners, including several in their 90s who attend daily services.

The pastor said he did not realize the shoes were left there as a memorial, saying he often finds discarded clothes, toys and empty bottles on the church steps.

“If they had asked me, certainly I would have encouraged them to put (the shoes) to one side so people could get into the church. I would not have had any problem, because I am a supporter of the Native cause,” Sebastian said.

“But people did not ask. I did not know who put it there. I did not see. Safety is the only reason I removed it.”

Sammie dismissed that explanation, saying she took care to place the shoes at the edges of the wide stone steps so people could walk between them.

As for the priest not realizing the shoes’ significance, she scoffed.

“I find that a little hard to believe, considering the pope has been talking about (residential schools),” she said.

On Tuesday, Sammie came back to the church, along with about a dozen residents carrying shoes, orange shirts, stuffed animals and signs proclaiming “Every Child Matters.”

The items soon covered the church steps.

“When I was raised, I didn’t know about the residential schools,” said Dunnville resident Marina Johnston.

“I’m ashamed to be a white Canadian, knowing this is our history. I think the only way for this to change is if we consciously make an effort for this to never happen again.”

Johnston said she was “disgusted” and “appalled” to hear Sebastian had removed the original tribute.

“He was just perpetuating the problem,” she said. “He could have laid a pair of shoes down himself. He could have said a prayer.

He could have let them be.”

The victims of the Kamloops school were among the prayer intentions at last weekend’s services, Sebastian said.

“We said prayers at last Sunday Mass for the 215 children who lost their lives. We said them at all the churches,” he said.

“We all are horrified by the situation. We all saw it, that’s why we all prayed.”

Sebastian said a path up the steps would be made to allow parishioners to attend Mass, but the latest memorial items would be left on display outside the church.

J.P. Antonacci  is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the  Hamilton Spectator . The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.


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