Ontario pastor hopes donation to our archdiocese will be a step forward in reconciliation

Kyle Greenham
Northern Light

.Towards the end of last summer, five boxes full of donated shoes showed up on the doorsteps of the Archdiocese of Grouard-McLennan’s chancery office.

The donations came from a small parish in southern Ontario, with the hope it would be both a help to Indigenous children in our region and a symbol of reconciliation.

When the Dene Tha’ Community School in Chateh received a box of these shoes this winter, principal Carlito Somera says this gift was a much-needed blessing for his students.

“We are thankful,” said Somera, who has been the principal with the Chateh school for 14 years. “There’s definitely a need for it.

“When we have a fire drill, many of our students have to go out without shoes. Or we have gym class and kids are just wearing socks, and that can be dangerous.”

Students in Chateh show off their new sneakers, donated by St. Mary’s Parish in Barrie, Ont.

The northern Dene reserve of Chateh was one of five Indigenous communities in our archdiocese who received a box of donated new shoes, all of various sizes and styles. The shoes were donated by St. Mary’s Parish in Barrie, Ontario, and given to the communities of Chateh, Sturgeon Lake, Fort Vermillion, Horse Lake and Grouard.

It was in the aftermath of the news out of Kamloops last May, when suspected unmarked graves were located near the grounds of a former Indian Residential School, that this initiative was sparked. As the pains and difficulties of the residential school system were brought back to light and the forefront of public conversation, the St. Mary’s community sought out a way to respond.

“Here in Barrie and the Archdiocese of Toronto we had no residential schools. But as Catholics, as Canadians, as people who encounter Indigenous peoples in need in our own community – we wanted to find a way to reach out,” said Father Larry Leger, pastor of St. Mary’s Church in Barrie, Ontario.

Pastor at St. Marys – Fr. Larry Leger.

The first Sunday after Kamloops had reignited conversations around the history of residential schools, Fr. Larry went to the Spirit Catcher – a prominent Indigenous artwork in Barrie – to pray.

He noticed that people had placed shoes underneath the art, representing children who went through the Indian Residential Schools system. It was a striking image for the priest.

Later that week, Ernestine Baldwin, a First Nations elder and parishioner at St. Mary’s, sparked the idea of using this symbol of the shoe in a positive and charitable way.

“She called me and said, ‘You know Father, as a way of going forward, wouldn’t it be possible to do a ‘shoe drive’ that would go to Indigenous children,’” Fr. Leger recalled.

This idea was brought to parishioners the following Sunday – June 6th – to collect donations of shoes for Indigenous communities in northern Canada. Over the following weeks, parishioners began donating new shoes or making monetary donations for purchasing them, until they had gathered a total of 100 pairs.

More students, alongside staff at Dene Tha’ Community School, show off their new shoes – thanks to St. Mary’s Church in Barrie, Ontario.

“We wanted to make sure Indigenous communities had new shoes. And we wanted to show our solidarity, our accompaniment with them,” said Father Leger. “Shoes became an important symbol. And it was a way for us to reach out as a community to show we wish to accompany them on this road to reconciliation.”

This is only an excerpt. 

Read the full story in the January-February edition of Northern Light