Pembroke – Duane Gastant Aucoin held a vigil outside St. Columbkille Cathedral last Friday for 751 minutes, a minute to honour each of the 751 Indigenous children who never returned home from a Catholic-run residential school in Saskatchewan, as he seeks an apology from the Catholic church.
There is a deeply personal connection to the horrors of residential schools for this Pembroke resident who is a Tlingit from Teslin, Yukon and came to the Ottawa Valley a few years ago to take care of his elderly father.
“My mother when she was eight years old was dragged away to the Lower Post Residential School in northern British Columbia,” he said. “She was thrown in the back of a cattle truck. Her parents were threatened with jail if they didn’t allow her to go and she lived there for quite a few years.”
His mother’s maiden name is Gastant and he bears it with pride. He also recalls the stories his mother told him about her time in residential school.
“She survived and she made it home. Although she made it home, she told me lots of stories of kids who didn’t make it home. And that’s a common story we’ve heard from every residential school. There’s kids who never made it home.” First Nations people have known for a long time about the children who never made it home, he said, and it is important for their stories to be told. The discovery of the unmarked graves has brought him to the steps of the Catholic church twice in the last month in vigil and remembrance, but he said it was not an unknown story.
“So, to us, us Indigenous, this is not a surprise,” he said. “It’s not a surprise all these children being found because we’ve been talking of this for years. It still hurts just to think these kids never got home, that their parents never got to see them again, their grandparents never got to see them again and they are buried in some field somewhere.”
When he read last week of the discovery of 751 bodies in Saskatchewan, he said his heart just broke.
“I knew there would be a lot, but I just never thought here would be that many,” he said. “751 children and so I wanted to do something and I was just thinking, one minute for every child that didn’t come home is a small way to honour these children. And to do this on the steps of the Catholic church as a reminder to them of their responsibility in all of this.”
He began his vigil at 7:51 a.m. and ended the day at 8:22 p.m. He was calling on the Catholic Church to apologize for its role in running the residential schools.
“My mom was dragged away to a Catholic residential school. Kamloops was a Catholic residential school and in Saskatchewan, that was a Catholic residential school. Seventy per cent of the schools were run by the Catholic church.”
Other schools were run by other denominations, including Anglican, United and Presbyterian and those denominations have apologized for their role in the residential school system, he said.
“Yet the Catholic Church are the only church who have not officially apologized,” he said. “All of the other churches have, but we still have not received an official apology from the pope. Pope Francis has to stop listening to the lawyers and has to start listening to his boss and start practicing what they preach.”
Mr. Aucoin said apologies made by bishops and priests on their own is appreciated, and is a step in the right direction, but with the way the Catholic church is structured it’s different than other churches, so it is important for the pope to apologize.
“The pope is the supreme in the Catholic church. He is referred to as the supreme pontiff. So, he’s the big boss. It’s nice that these other bishops are apologizing, but only the pope can apologize on behalf of the church,” he said.
Last Friday as he stood outside the Cathedral, he was touched by the people stopping by to offer support.
“The support given is just amazing. It’s a human, it doesn’t matter if you are Indigenous or non-Indigenous. Its children being stolen from their families and then dying in a foreign school and being buried in a field. Who can’t react to that?”
He recalled being told the story of his grandmother waiting for the bus to bring his uncle Albert home at the end of the school year. All the kids got of the bus and she was, like, ‘where’s my son, where’s Albert?’ And then that’s when they told her, ‘Oh, oh, he died months ago’. No one had bothered to tell his grandmother that her son died in residential school. She found out waiting for him at the bus and him not showing up.
“And what made it even worse is they never even told her where he was buried so she never even had a place to go and see the grave. She carried that until the day she died. The pain of a mother not being there when her child died, not being able to go to his grave because they wouldn’t tell her where it was. And it’s unfortunate. That story is common.”
The story of the children who never made it home is ongoing, he said.
“Three weeks ago, we were putting kids shoes on the steps for the 215 kids from Kamloops. I’m just getting tired of being here. I haven’t been to church this much.”
He was born and raised Catholic, but he calls himself “a recovering Catholic”, no longer a part of the church for many reasons.
“I used to have a lot of anger towards the church. I am two spirit and so what the church has done to Indigenous people, what the church has done to the LGBQ community, why would I want to belong to such an organization?” he asked. “I used to have a lot of anger and hatred towards the church. I’ve learned to let it go. I’m not going to let it eat away at my life.”
Pope Francis in a lot of ways has helped with that, he said. “He has tried in his own little ways to force the church into the modern age so I do appreciate a lot of what he has done, but it still really disappoints me that he won’t apologize too and he’s been asked to,” he said.
However, he added it’s the Canadian Council of Catholic Bishops, they are the ones who must make the request to him.
Well spoken and articulate, he said he has been trained and educated by his elders.
Living in the Valley
Since arriving in Pembroke in 2019 to care for his 86-year-old father, Mr. Aucoin has become involved in other issues involving racism in the Ottawa Valley and was one of those featured in an expose about racism last year. When he arrived in Pembroke, he had no idea he would still be in the community two years later, but the pandemic hit and things became more complicated.
“Who knows? If there is one thing these last two years have taught me is just go with the flow. Where I end up is where I am meant to be,” he said.
His mother’s experience in residential school is something which has left a deep impact on him, so he felt it was important to take a stand last week outside the cathedral.
“My mom was so brain-washed after being in Lower Post (residential school) she still went back their to work. That’s how programmed the brainwashing was and that’s where she met my dad. My dad had gone to Lower Post as one of the dorm boys’ supervisors. My mom was working in the kitchen and that’s where they lived.”
His mother is Tlingit. The tribe is found in the Pacific Northwest Coast with three communities in BC and the Yukon totalling about 1,200 and 14,000 in Alaska.
Mr. Aucoin is a member of the Teslin Tlingit executive council, a self-governing First Nation. One of the benefits of the pandemic with the virtual technology he is still able to continue being an executive council while in Pembroke.
Debbi Christinck, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader