Pieces of former Brandon residential school left in Rome

Jade Harper brought rubble from the residential school to Rome. (Photo by Fred Cattroll a well known Cree photographer)

By Chelsea Kemp, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
A Peguis First Nation member honoured the legacy of her grandmother by placing rubble from the former Brandon Indian Residential School in St. Peter’s Square after witnessing the Papal apology in Rome.
As part of her journey to Italy and back, documentary filmmaker Jade Harper brought rubble from the residential school to lay at the foot of the Vatican.
“The apology is a moment,’’ Harper said. “A moment that brought some of us to tears, some filled with joy and relief and others with anger and grief. We must keep talking. We must keep singing and dancing. We must forge ahead and continue to reclaim our relations, our space and cultivate joy on the very lands that nourish us.’’
Harper departed from Treaty 1 Territory North of Winnipeg for Italy on March 24 and returned to Manitoba on April 4. She was part of a crew of three filming the experience of residential school survivors in Italy on behalf of the Assembly of First Nations.
It was a long and winding road bringing the rubble to Italy, as Harper had been holding on to the school bricks for seven years.
When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission came to an end in 2015, Harper decided she needed to visit the former Brandon Indian Residential School.
Her grandmother, Ruth Ratt, was forced to attend the facility from the age of five to 15 and perpetually attempted to escape too many times to count.
`Her experience, like many survivors, was awful. It was abusive,’’ Harper said. “Going there was a way for me to acknowledge her experience. It felt empty. I tried to grasp the feeling as much as it felt just really lonely.’’
It’s believed there are 104 graves at the former Brandon Indian Residential School.
Harper offered tobacco, sang a song and conducted ceremony at the site. Before leaving, she was compelled to take rubble from the walls of the school.
The trip to the site ended up leading to more questions and feelings, Harper said. For the past seven years, she has been navigating her family history and the lasting impacts of colonialism that continues to impact modern-day life.
“Intergenerational trauma amongst our families is something we are still navigating.’’
When she returned home, Harper placed the pieces of rubble in a cloth bag with medicine: tobacco, sage, cedar and sweetgrass, tucking it away for safekeeping.
It felt like a reclamation being able to practise her culture when residential schools had attempted to strip it away from her ancestors, she said.
The rubble remained untouched, waiting for the right moment to be unveiled.
“A part of me felt a little bit afraid of it,’’ Harper said.
“Those walls have seen so much and so I wanted to protect myself from that. I wanted to wrap those pieces in medicine. It was cleansing and healing.’’
As she was packing for her trip to Italy, Harper decided she had to bring the pieces of rubble with her.
She was unsure where she would place the bricks at first, but she found a fountain in St. Peter’s Square on her last day in Italy.
“Water is our medicine and it’s very sacred,’’ Harper said.
“Women, our responsibility is the water and so I felt it was important to take those pieces with a piece of sweetgrass and my tobacco tie and take it to the fountain.’’
Placing the pieces helped her “feel still’’ in her heart, as she set down the tobacco and bricks and prayed for children, relatives struggling with the trauma, First Nation communities and others traumatized by residential schools.
“Everyone was bringing gifts for the Pope and I didn’t have any gifts because I didn’t feel it was necessary to be gifting anything,’’ Harper said.
“I was there because I wanted to help amplify the voices of residential school survivors and I felt like I was returning something that never belonged to us in the first place.’’
Harper attended the private audience with the Pope and was able to witness the apology in person holding her phone open with a photo of her grandmother.
The Canadian Press reported Pope Francis made a historic apology to Indigenous peoples for the “deplorable’’ abuses they suffered in Canada’s Catholic-run residential schools and said he hoped to visit Canada in late July to deliver the apology in person to survivors of the church’s misguided missionary zeal.
Pope Francis begged forgiveness during an audience with dozens of members of the Metis, Inuit and First Nations communities who came to Rome seeking a papal apology and a commitment from the Catholic Church to repair the damage.
More than 150,000 Indigenous children in Canada were forced to attend state-funded Christian schools from the 19th century until the 1970s to isolate them from the influence of their homes and culture. The aim was to Christianize and assimilate them into mainstream society, which previous
Canadian governments considered superior, reported The Canadian Press.
The Catholic Church ran many of the Indian residential schools across Canada,
including the Brandon facility from 1969 to `72.
Nearly three-quarters of Canada’s 130 residential schools were run by Catholic missionary congregations.
The papal apology marked a significant historical moment, Harper said, that was only made possible by the courage of survivors who survived Canada’s attempted genocide of Indigenous people, cultures and traditions.
The apology can serve as a launchpad to talk about colonial history and the lasting impacts these actions continue to have on Indigenous communities. As these issues are understood, communities can work towards a healing path.
“Every apology has to have action. They have to take responsibility and those steps need to happen,’’ Harper said. “I think it was important the Catholic Church around the world has seen their leadership apologize and acknowledge those harms.’’
Chelsea Kemp is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the BRANDON SUN. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada. Turtle Island News does not receive LJI government funding.

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