Catholic priest offers himself to survivors to ‘express their anger’

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The Regina Leader Post

08 June 2012

By Jason Warick, StarPhoenix

As Roman Catholic priest Rev. Mark Blom sat in the audience listening to three days of graphic testimony from residential school survivors, he felt compelled to speak.

Blom rose from his seat and like the others, gathered the smoke from the burning sweet-grass placed in front of him as part of the smudging ceremony.

He walked to the microphone and began his testimony before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

Blom explained that he did not work at any residential schools, but many members of his Oblate order did.

“As one of their ancestors, I just want to say today that from my heart I am sorry and I regret what happened to individuals and you as a people in these schools,” said Blom, whose parishes include La Ronge and other remote northern communities.

“I am here to pay full attention to your stories and listen to you.”

Some of the priests were generous and kind, while others were abusive, he said. Regardless of the actions of individuals, the residential school system was a mistake, he said. Children were forced to abandon their culture and read the Bible. The priests evolved into “prison guards.”

“There was no one to take your pain seriously,” he said.

Today, the church is still struggling to find the best way to help with the reconciliation process, he said. The church, and non-First Nations people in general, “are learning how to be with you,” he said.

For various reasons, many survivors have never been able to face or confront their abusers. Blom offered to serve as a surrogate for them to express their anger.

“If you need to say that to a priest, I will be willing to receive it from you.”

His ended his testimony by saying thank-you in Cree.

Blom’s humility was noted by other speakers, who thanked him for attending.

“Those are strong words, taking on the wrongs that others have done,” said John Halkett, whose parents and grandparents attended residential schools.

Others said nothing Blom or other well-meaning church officials do will restore their faith.

Doreen Mckenzie attended the school in Timber Bay near Montreal Lake, one of the schools that is not on the approved federal government list for compensation.

Mckenzie related stories of severe beatings that left massive bruises during her years there in the late 1960s. The worst beating by the head priest came after a failed runaway attempt by Mckenzie and her classmate.

“You girls thought you were gone forever,” Mckenzie recalled him saying.

She said her and her friend “weren’t even crying” because the strappings with willow branches and other instruments left them numb.

Paul Sylvester of the Birch Narrows Dene Nation was loaded onto a barge with other children in the late 1940s. At first, he enjoyed playing hockey, serving as an altar boy and singing.

But there was another side.

Priests would eat lavish meals that included fresh fruit in front of the children, who would get a “hard lump of oatmeal and a bit of milk.” They repeatedly told the children that European ways were superior to theirs.

“I was branded a savage and a dumb Indian,” he said.

One Sunday, following his altar boy duties, one priest told Sylvester to look in his pocket for matches.

There were no matches and the priest forced Sylvester to masturbate him.

“From that day on, I have never looked at a priest as a servant of God,” he said.

The abuse continued for the next three years until Sylvester was kicked out of the school.

It’s only recently that Sylvester has begun to discuss the abuse openly and Thursday’s testimony further relieved his heavy burden, he said.

“This is my story. I just want to get rid of it,” he said. “I feel better every time I get rid of this garbage inside me. I feel light and I feel happy.”

The commission is nearly half way through its five-year mandate.

A major national event will be held in Saskatoon later this month.

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