Community leader George Couchie says it's time to heal.
Couchie, accompanied by his granddaughter Grace and four respected young leaders from Nipissing First Nation — three teachers and an artist — drummed, prayed, and cleansed the stairway leading to the doors of the Pro-Cathedral of the Assumption in North Bay.
They were met by Bishop Thomas Dowd of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sault Ste. Marie, who joined the group in removing the shoes, banners, and flags left on that stairway at the church in the wake of the discovery of 215 bodies of children buried on the grounds of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C. late last month. Couchie says it was important to remove the items honouring the children in a respectful way.
"This is part of the healing here," Couchie says, pointing to Dowd's involvement and willingness to learn and listen. "It's about coming together. We brought the young men to sing and my granddaughter to smudge the youth. It's about healing."
The Bishop would later share it was Couchie who extended the olive branch to begin the healing process by inviting Dowd for dinner at his home. He says the two spent hours talking over the situation and he has since revisited the Truth and Reconciliation text and looked to the Indigenous Seven Grandfather teachings for guidance.
"I think, right now, what our community is looking for is healing," Couchie says. "Because I was an officer with the OPP, I often said to people 'It's not just about enforcement. It's about how do we heal?'"
Couchie's own father was a residential school survivor and he says the numbers don't surprise him. He says he has done the research and visited the schools to know well enough the number of Indigenous children's bodies out there could reach as high as 50,000.
"The anger is part of the trauma," explains Couchie "but it's not going to help us move as a community. It's our youth that really needs this support at this difficult time. That's why we came in support of the Church and built that friendship."
The shoes will be moved to the Indigenous Friendship Centre and any flags removed Tuesday will be kept at the Pro-Cathedral to be picked up by their owners. Later Tuesday, Couchie led a similar ceremony at City Hall, where flags had remained at half-mast since May 31. Couchie credited Mayor Al McDonald with his leadership and solidarity.
Dowd, who released a statement expressing his outrage following the discovery of the bodies in Kamloops, credits Couchie's friendship as allowing him to take an inventory of the situation and find a way to move forward.
"I was in shock," upon hearing the news. "It took a long time for me to start to feel emotions, to start to think again," Dowd says. "I think some people process things differently — some it's immediate, others it hits them hard afterwards. For me, it's more of that."
Bishop Dowd confirms he is "in favour of an apology from the Pope. I think, also, we need to renew what our understanding of 'apology' is. Pope Francis is from Argentina, I have no belief that he knew anything about Kamloops when it was happening. That's not the point. The point is the Pope is the leader of a community that needs to go through the process of reconciliation. That starts with acknowledging our history and an apology that comes from the heart and acknowledges facts is something I feel is very important."
When asked about Couchie's estimation of 50,000 unfound bodies, Dowd admits he has no idea how many bodies there are and "that's part of the tragedy of this," that the graves are unmarked for so many.
"How do people who are in contact with things that are holy do evil? It's a mystery to me," says Dowd. "I know I'm thankful for the faith I received from my ancestors and my parents — and it's helped me to be the person that I am. I can't speak to what was going on in the hearts of others."