'Help them to understand': A Yukon chief's plea for the Catholic Church

·3 min read
'The message we sent to the Catholic Church was not directly to you, Bishop Villa. I want you to know that. The message is for the Catholic Church itself,' said Kwanlin Dün Chief Doris Bill at a demonstration in Whitehorse on Monday. (Philippe Morin/CBC - image credit)
'The message we sent to the Catholic Church was not directly to you, Bishop Villa. I want you to know that. The message is for the Catholic Church itself,' said Kwanlin Dün Chief Doris Bill at a demonstration in Whitehorse on Monday. (Philippe Morin/CBC - image credit)

It was one of the biggest marches in Whitehorse in recent memory — and it ended with an emotional plea from a local First Nation chief, who singled out the local Catholic bishop.

"I want people here to reach out to Bishop Vila, to help him to understand," said Kwanlin Dün Chief Doris Bill, addressing the crowd that had gathered Monday afternoon at the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre downtown.

"And to reach out to the other people here who don't understand. And let's help them to understand."

Thousands of people marched on Monday in response to the recent discovery on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in B.C. Preliminary findings uncovered the remains of 215 children.

Héctor Vila, bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Whitehorse, was among the marchers. He held a pair of children's shoes — a symbol for those dead and missing. Hundreds of pairs of children's shoes had been left outside the local Catholic church in recent days.

Héctor Vila, bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Whitehorse, held a pair of children's shoes as he stood among the demonstrators in Whitehorse on Monday afternoon.
Héctor Vila, bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Whitehorse, held a pair of children's shoes as he stood among the demonstrators in Whitehorse on Monday afternoon.(Vincent Bonnay/Radio-Canada)

Chief Bill thanked the bishop for being there alongside the demonstrators. She told the crowd that the bishop is originally from Peru, and that he should not be personally singled out.

"I don't believe he knows our history. I don't believe he knows all of what we've been through," Bill said.

"The message we sent to the Catholic Church was not directly to you, Bishop Vila. I want you to know that. The message is for the Catholic Church itself."

The bishop did not make any public comments at the event.

Bill also acknowledged the presence of RCMP at the gathering on Monday, saying, "they're standing with us."

"I know that many years ago they were part of the process, too, in taking our children away. But we're in a different time here and we have to find a way to make amends and to build that relationship again," she said.

Thousands of people took part in the march in downtown Whitehorse on Monday.
Thousands of people took part in the march in downtown Whitehorse on Monday.(Philippe Morin/CBC)

Bill also said that Yukon First Nations will urge the federal government to do what it can to "bring our children home."

Some local leaders have called for investigations of all former residential school sites, in Yukon and elsewhere.

Champagne and Aishihik First Nations Chief Steve Smith said at Monday's gathering that if that happens, there will likely be more painful discoveries to come.

"Each nation in this country is going to go through this. I don't think Kamloops was the only one," Smith said.

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

Mental health services are available to Yukoners both in Whitehorse and in rural Yukon communities through Mental Wellness and Substance Use Services. Yukoners can schedule Rapid Access Counselling supports in Whitehorse and all MWSU community hubs by calling 1-867-456-3838.