Justin Trudeau has asked Pope Francis to apologise (Photo by Vatican Pool/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

The hardest word

The Catholic Church is resisting huge pressure to apologise for its involvement in indigenous cruelty

Two weeks ago, the remains of 215 Indigenous children were discovered at a residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia, on Canada’s west coast. They were members of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation, and some of these children are thought to have been as young as three-years-old. They are unnamed, their bodies were given no respect or dignity, and the public outcry is unprecedented. Not that Canada’s birth defect, its treatment of Indigenous people, is news to this country, but in my 34 years in Toronto I’ve never experienced such visceral and fierce anger.

 The appalling mistreatment of Canada’s First Nations people has numerous aspects, but residential schools stand out in their obscenity because of the youth and vulnerability of the victims. Between the 1840s and the 1990s more than 150,000 children were taken from their families in an attempt to convert them, change them, “make them white” and, “take the Indian out of the Indian.” The idea in itself was hideous, and in application it was even worse. There was physical and sexual abuse, lack of medical care, and sheer cruelty.

The state has, albeit rather late and sometimes reluctantly, acknowledged its involvement, as have almost all of those churches that operated the school on behalf of the government. This particular school was run by the Catholic Church from 1890 to 1969, when the federal government took charge. It was closed nine years later. 

The hierarchy is terrified of the legal and financial repercussions that might follow a formal apology

In 1986 the United Church, Canada’s largest Protestant denomination, stated, “We imposed our civilization as a condition of accepting the gospel. We tried to make you be like us and in so doing we helped to destroy the vision that made you what you were. We ask you to forgive us and to walk together with us in the Spirit of Christ so that our peoples may be blessed and God’s creation healed.” Seven years later, Archbishop Michael Peers, Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, issued a profoundly moving document: “I accept and I confess before God and you, our failures in the residential schools. We failed you. We failed ourselves. We failed God … I am sorry, more than I can say, that we tried to remake you in our image, taking from you your language and the signs of your identity.” 

The exception to all this is the Roman Catholic Church. There have certainly been kind words, even partial apologies, but the church has too often been silent, couched its statements, has never taken ownership of the crime, and refuses to make available documents and files that may reveal the names of culprits, and the details of what actually happened.

Last Sunday, Pope Francis made matters even worse when he said, “I join the Canadian Bishops and the whole Catholic Church in Canada in expressing my closeness to the Canadian people, who have been traumatized by shocking discovery of the remains of two hundred and fifteen children, pupils at the Kamloops Indian Residential School.” It was painfully inadequate, seemingly written through a legal filter, and caused further outrage across the country. 

The result of all this is a tangible wave of criticism thrown at the Catholic Church. There are calls for it to lose charitable status, for the public funding of Catholic schools that exists in large parts of the country to be withdrawn, and for diplomatic links with the Vatican to be suspended. This goes beyond social media, with columns in major newspapers and commentaries on syndicated radio stations asking biting questions of the church. This should all be of enormous concern to Rome. 

The context is important, because Canada is not some hotbed of anti-Catholicism. In fact, Catholicism is by far the largest denomination here, with almost 40 per cent of Canadians identifying as Catholic, and since the mid-1960s most of the Prime Ministers have been members of the church, some of them sincerely observant. What was once a proudly Orange nation was transformed long ago, and sectarian anti-Catholicism a thing of the past.

A number of influential conservatives within the church see it more as a noble effort that was mishandled

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, himself Catholic, asked Pope Francis personally to make a specific apology when the two leaders met; the House of Commons voted by a margin of 269-10 to formally invite the Pope to reconsider his reluctance; and last week the Minister of Indigenous Services described the Pope’s failure to apologize as “shameful”.

A major obstacle, of course, is that the church is already morbidly and expensively busy dealing with countless clergy sexual abuse cases, sometimes leading to bankruptcy, abroad as well as in Canada. The hierarchy is terrified of the legal and financial repercussions that might follow a formal apology for the residential schools. The oppression of Indigenous people has also been described as a genocide, and such an accusation and definition can lead to internationally-sanctioned prosecution.

Beyond all of that, there is the challenge of the church’s reputation. While many Catholics, and many leaders within the church, are ashamed of the residential school system, a number of influential conservatives within the church see it more as a noble effort that was mishandled than a policy that was flawed in itself. They are impatient with what they regard as “woke religion”, and what one leading Catholic journalist described to me as, “a revisionism that implies that we shouldn’t have tried to convert and evangelize.”

The anger of Canadians, a tolerant and even placid people, may subside, but the dark truth is that there may be further monstrous discoveries not unlike that in Kamloops. This issue isn’t going to disappear, and the Catholic Church, and Rome in particular, will have to remember Matthew’s Gospel – “Let your word be “Yes, Yes’ or “No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.” An entire nation, and the world, is waiting and watching.

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