church Residential schools

Sturgeon Landing, Saskatchewan, 1952

We can’t let the Catholic Church off the hook for residential schools

“Why are we still reverent towards an institution that’s capable of such horrific acts of violence? Why not just seize their assets to fund the search for more grave sites, and pay reparations?”

After the gruesome discovery in Kamloops, B.C. of a mass grave containing the remains of 215 residential school children, Pope Francis tweeted: “I join the Canadian Bishops and the whole Catholic Church in Canada expressing my closeness to the Canadian people, who have been traumatized by the shocking discovery of the remains of 215 children, pupils at the Kamloops Indian Residential School.” 

That was it. 

No apology, no admission of culpability, no commitment to make reparations and cooperate willingly with the investigation, and no pledge to commit funds and effort to help victims. Just a vague expression of sympathy, generic “thoughts and prayers,” a tweet that purports to say something while saying nothing at all. I’m still not sure what he meant by “closeness” and why he expressed it for all “Canadian people” as if we all were equally affected and traumatized by these events. I think what disappointed me most, however, was his polite, detached tone, as if the Pope is a distant observer in some sad, faraway story and not the official representative and spiritual leader of an institution that was one of the key participants in these deaths and their coverups. 

But surely the Canadian Bishops and the Catholic Church in Canada who were much closer to this story would react with a bit more emotion and sense of gravitas of their involvement, right? 

Disappointment number two coming right up. 

In an interview with journalist Rosie Barton on CBC Politics, Archbishop of Toronto Cardinal Thomas Collins appeared no more crestfallen by the revelations. On the contrary, he defiantly told Barton that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s comments calling on the Catholic Church to release records from its former residential schools were extremely “unhelpful” and “uninformed.” 

Unhelpful to whom exactly? The families of those buried in unmarked graves? The survivors of these schools still living with unspeakable trauma? Or simply unhelpful for the church’s image? My money is on that last one. This deliberate obfuscation of the truth and the stonewalling of any sort of collective responsibility for this dark and long chapter of our national history is shameful.

Part of the Church’s long history of denial

church residential schools
Pope Francis (We can’t let the Catholic Church off the hook for residential schools)

As disappointing as they are, both the Pope’s and the Archbishop’s woefully inadequate reactions to the news should be neither shocking nor seen as a historical oddity. In fact, they’re the norm. After all, the Catholic Church has a long history of abuse and coverups. 

We already know about the sexual abuse cases around the world. We know about (often successful attempts) to sweep them all under the rug, the quiet, hush-hush relocating of the guilty. We know about the institution’s abuse of power, its misogyny and its undeniable impact on women’s lives and health by continuing to fight against reproductive rights and free choice. We know about the church’s complicit role in slavery and colonialism around the world. And yet these institutions continue to operate above the law. Isn’t it time we stopped letting them? 

Why are we all sitting around waiting and hoping for an apology from the Pope and the Church he represents? Why isn’t this discovery of implication in abuse, murder and conspiracy to hide incriminating evidence not being treated the way a criminal investigation would, and the Church treated like any other suspect would be treated? What abuse or murder suspect do you know whom police politely cajole to give them access to their property to search for evidence? Why has the Kamloops discovery not been followed by search warrants, criminal charges and litigation? Why aren’t the RCMP — which is only good these days, it would appear, for protecting oil and logging companies busy installing pipelines or chopping down thousand-year-old trees in B.C. — not busting down doors and simply taking whatever records remain before they, too, are conveniently destroyed? 

Undeserved special status and respect

The notorious St. Anne’s residential school, Fort Albany First Nation (We can’t let the Catholic Church off the hook for residential schools)

Why are we still treating with reverence and respect institutions that have shown themselves to be capable of such horrific acts of violence? Why not just seize their assets and pay for the ground-penetrating radar needed to unearth more graves, allocating the rest of the funds to the victims as real reparations? While I’m at it, why in the world are we still exempting the Church from paying taxes? Why not pass legislation to remove charitable status from churches – especially since they’ve been largely unable to demonstrate any charitable behaviour. Even here in Quebec, where we like to pretend that we’re secular, we display our distaste of religion by forbidding non-Christians from displaying their symbols of faith, yet we continue to allow private religious schools plenty of financial perks and shield the church from taxation. It’s all window dressing. 

Institutions, like all man-made organizations, often reflect both the worst and the best of humanity. There is a lot of good that takes place in many spaces of organized religion, but when the bad happens, we need to ensure churches are no longer allowed to be a safe space for abusers. 

As it stands right now, thousands of files have still not been shared by the Catholic religious congregations, despite clear calls to action by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The TRC has repeatedly requested and is still waiting for documents like daily archives, photos, correspondence and anything else that could help identify these children and piece together what happened in these residential schools. 

The Catholic Church has historically been known for its meticulous records. And yet, to what purpose, if they are kept behind vaults, never to be shown to the people they could help? Instead of doing everything in their power to now bring some peace of mind and closure to these families, the government and churches have been fighting for more than 20 years over making records available to groups trying to identify residential school victims. 

The Church must be held accountable

Church residential schools
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (We can’t let the Catholic Church off the hook for residential schools)

The government will eventually be held responsible. Calls for the feds to end litigation in court against residential school survivors will only get louder as more Canadians come to terms with the country’s genocidal past. Public opinion polls guide governments and politicians, and politics, for better or for worse, is a reactionary game. Whether it wants to or not, the Canadian government will have to come to terms with our distasteful past and grudgingly work towards making amends financially and otherwise. 

But while Canadians are emailing their MPs and their government representatives demanding to see concrete action, we shouldn’t let the Church off the hook. It’s vital that we apply equal sustained pressure to an institution that has historically evaded consequences for its horrific and very un-Christian-like actions. It’s the very least we owe these children who never made it home. ■

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.