Family wants apology after pastor throws out shoes left on Catholic church steps to honour Indigenous children

The child of a residential school survivor is upset with a Roman Catholic diocese's pastor in southern Ontario who threw away shoes left in front of his church because he thought they were a tripping hazard and too dirty.

Sunny Sebastian says he didn't know shoes were a memorial, diocese says it was 'unfortunate misunderstanding'

People in Dunnville, Ont., left shoes, toys and other mementos in front of St. Michael the Archangel on June 8. A day earlier, the pastor at the Catholic church removed other shoes that had been left on the steps, saying they were a tripping hazard. (Submitted by Sammie Ne Hiyawak)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

When Sammie Ne Hiyawak placed five pairs of shoes on the steps of a Roman Catholic church in Haldimand County, they thought about their father — an Ontario residential school survivor.

The shoes, placed on June 7, also served as a memorial after the remains of some 215 Indigenous children were detected on the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C.

But later the same day, Pastor Sunny Sebastian of St. Michael the Archangel in Dunnville, Ont., put the shoes in a garbage bag to throw them away, saying they were a tripping hazard. 

Removal of the shoes sparked controversy on social media, and Sebastian said he only learned afterward why the shoes were left on the steps.

But Ne Hiyawak, who uses they/them pronouns, believes Sebastian was aware of the memorials around Canada. They added the condition of the shoes was symbolic "of what these children went through. They were put through hell."

"Those children were treated like they were dirty."

The playground at Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Kenora, Ont., circa 1957. Sammie Ne Hiyawak's father, of James Bay Cree and Abenaki, was 10 and Ne Hiyawak's uncle was five when they were forced to be at the school. (The Presbyterian Church in Canada Archives)

Ne Hiyawak's father, of James Bay Cree and Abenaki, was 10, and Ne Hiyawak's uncle was five when they were forced to attend Kenora's Cecilia Jeffery Indian Residential School. The school conducted medical and nutritional experiments on children.

"He told stories of being hit across the face with one of those hand bells and having his ears pulled so hard, they ripped away from the side of his head. That's the tame stuff," Ne Hiyawak said.

"Those were shoes I put out there for my relatives."

Sebastian said he didn't initially realize the shoes were serving as a memorial, pointing out that people have left trash and beer bottles in front of the church before.

He also said no one told him in advance and there was no sign to show the shoes were meant to be a memorial.

Shoes were too dirty, pastor says

On June 8, at least a dozen people showed up with shoes, toys and other mementos to create another memorial, which Sebastian approved — but he still threw out the original shoes Ne Hiyawak left the day before.

"Not even one shoe was good enough for anything ... they were torn and good for no one," Sebastian said in an interview on Friday.

"If you are doing a memorial, you put nice shoes ... when a person dies, you don't put artificial flowers on top of a casket."

Ne Hiyawak says these are the original shoes they left in front of the church on June 7. (Submitted by Sammie Ne Hiyawak)

Sebastian said he prayed for the Indigenous children, and is close to people in Six Nations of the Grand River.

Diocese says situation is 'misunderstanding'

Margaret Jong, vice-chancellor of the Diocese of St. Catharines, called the situation a "very unfortunate misunderstanding" and said she didn't know the shoes were tossed away.

"I'm very sad to hear that," she said in an interview on Saturday.

Wray Anderson from Six Nations of the Grand River and Father Sunny Sebastian (on the right) led a prayer in front of the Catholic church after people left shoes and mementos as a memorial to children who attended residential schools. (fathersunny sebastian/YouTube)

"We're very sorry if there was offence given by the actions of any of us since the news about Kamloops and we want to be respectful."

Jong also pointed to a statement from the bishop of St. Catharines who expressed "profound sorrow and regret for all the pain and suffering experienced by children who were forced to attend these schools run by Catholic bishops, priests and nuns."

"It is a dark period of our history and one that we can never forget," the bishop said in the statement.

Meanwhile, Pope Francis hasn't issued a formal apology about the discovered remains.

Ne Hiyawak said they want to hear from Sebastian. So far, the Ontario Provincial Police has acted as a liaison.

"He owes my family an apology," they 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.


Bobby Hristova is a journalist with CBC Hamilton. He reports on all issues, but has a knack for stories that hold people accountable, stories that focus on social issues and investigative journalism. He previously worked for the National Post and CityNews in Toronto. You can contact him at bobby.hristova@cbc.ca.