In response to a late June announcement, the United States will be conducting an investigation…
The complex history of the Church’s role in Canadian residential schools
Ecclesiastes says there is a time to speak and a time to be silent. When it comes to unmarked Canadian graveyards full of Indigenous children, there is a sense in which this is a time not to speak.
These children did not just die in hostile Church-run residential schools in which they were essentially imprisoned. They also died far from their families — families who never got a chance to see or to bury their bodies. That is the sort of horror that commands a grieving silence.
On the other hand, we need to say something about what happened. As Catholics, we need to understand why missionaries who profess to be dedicated to the cause of Christ would have been complicit in tearing children from their homes and subjecting them to the often prisonlike regimen of these schools. Our goal should not be to defend those involved but to understand how people who thought they meant well could perpetuate such gross evils. This way, not only can we (hopefully) undo some of the harm that was done, we can also do our best to make sure it never happens again.
Establishing the schools
In 2015, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) published several reports summarizing the documentary and eyewitness accounts of the residential schools. What one finds in these texts is that the early Canadian approach to Indigenous peoples generally took one of two forms.
Some, especially in government and business, contemptuously viewed the First Nations as an inconvenience — an obstruction to progress to be bulldozed over without a second thought. Others cared for the Indigenous peoples. They feared that industrial civilization was destroying their migratory and hunting-based livelihood and worried that, unless they learned to farm and adjust to the new economy, they were in danger of disappearing.
The TRC reports indicate that many Catholic missionaries in Canada were in the latter camp. They deplored how the Indigenous people were exploited for their resources and then effectively left to die (recall that the Church opposed the sale of alcohol to First Nations people) and felt it was morally incumbent on the settlers who were destroying the traditional lifestyle to make amends by training the First Peoples to survive in a technological society.
Apparently, many Indigenous people felt the same way. For example, the Ojibway chief, Shingwauk, reached out to the Anglicans, asking them to provide an education for his tribe’s children and went fundraising from parish to parish until an Anglican school was built. It operated for a century. As the TRC notes, “despite the conflicts and disappointments that would arise in the future, from the outset of the residential school system, some Aboriginal leaders and parents were committed to ensuring that their children received the schooling they would need to make an ongoing contribution to the life of their communities.”
However, the federal government of Canada was not especially interested in taking on that responsibility. When the treaties were drawn up in which the First Peoples agreed to share their land with the crown in exchange for certain promises, there is no evidence that the government ever intended to include education as one of the rights Aboriginal people would enjoy. It was the chiefs who demanded that Canada add a commitment to educating Indigenous children to the provisions of the treaties.
The residential schools were ostensibly an attempt to satisfy this obligation, about which the Canadian government was obviously not enthused. Federal bureaucrats did not want to take on the expense of staffing and maintaining the schools.
So, they turned to the churches.
Taken and abused
Mission schools of various denominations had been operating in Canada since 1608, so missionaries already had some educational experience and infrastructure in place. Plus, the staff of Catholic schools consisted mostly of consecrated religious. This provided a cheap workforce, and, for the government, cheapness was the name of the game when it came to residential schools. A somewhat unstable partnership with the churches was forged: The government would fund the schools, and the churches would run them.
Here, the story takes an even uglier turn. Several missionaries felt that the best way to guarantee that students assimilated to European civilization was to separate them from their native culture. Bishop Vital-Justin Grandin, an advocate of Indigenous peoples and an architect of the residential school system, included this in his recommendation to the federal government. However, he also made it clear that this should only be done with the consent of the parents. Children were not to be taken against their family’s will.
Unfortunately, the government was not so amenable to parental rights. Against the advice of these missionaries, government policy mandated that Indigenous parents had to send their children to these boarding schools and forbade them from visiting each other. Students were then stripped of everything from their culture and often prohibited from speaking their native language.
As if this were not bad enough, the government was not keen on spending more money on these schools than it felt it absolutely needed to. Residential school inspectors were explicitly told not to make any recommendations that would increase expenditures. Thus, conditions were generally inadequate, such that, when a tuberculosis outbreak swept Canada, the schools did not have the resources they needed to properly care for infected students, and their mortality rates were far higher than the national average. Thus, you have school graveyards, marked with flimsy crosses that soon rotted away.
Lust for power and flesh
None of this is to exonerate the missionaries who ran these schools. They should have understood the Gospel well enough to refuse to cooperate in this wickedness. But, if any building deserves to be marked with red handprints in retribution for these schools, it is the House of Commons.
The testimonies of cruelty, neglect and physical and sexual abuse perpetuated at many of these schools are revolting, and it is important that they have been heard. But how can we make any sense of them? I think, like so many cases of clerical crime, we need to trace it back to power without accountability.
Last month, the United Kingdom discovered that rampant sexual and physical abuse took place for decades at children’s homes in the Lambeth Council borough of London; three houses alone yielded 700 such allegations. This is an obscene reminder that, in this fallen world, wherever people have control over children without appropriate oversight and protective policies in place, those with a lust for power and for flesh will take grotesque advantage of it.
Yet it will always be especially appalling when it rears its head among those who carry the name of Jesus. (Yes, some workers at these schools did the best job they could, and some former students speak positively of their experiences there. This proves that God brings good out of evil, not that they weren’t evil.)
Besides this physical assault on the students, cultural genocide also occurred. The main rationale behind “killing the Indian in the child” was the idea that Indigenous spirituality was preventing children from assimilating to white industrial society, but some missionaries also saw it as being inherently pagan or demonic. This was completely at odds with the Catholic genius, seen so often in history, for baptizing cultures as well as persons.
In fact, the early Jesuit missionaries in Canada achieved this: The first Canadian Christmas carol is St. Jean de Brébeuf’s 1642 “Huron Carol,” written in the Huron language and depicting the baby Jesus wrapped in “a ragged robe of rabbit’s skin,” laid to rest in a lodge and worshipped by hunters. Perhaps, if the mission schools had continued to operate without the backing of government coercion — if missionaries had needed to win parents’ approval if they wanted to keep students enrolled at those schools — they could have rediscovered this spirit of Christianizing Indigenous culture rather than erasing it.
So what does all this mean for us today?
In 2006, representatives of the Church in Canada were party to a settlement agreement in which they committed to putting several million dollars toward Aboriginal healing. Legally speaking, these commitments have been fulfilled, though the amount actually raised was well below the stated goal. However, in response to recent developments, many Canadian Catholics have organized campaigns to raise the rest of these funds and to ensure that they go to Indigenous people directly, rather than being wasted on legal expenses. Perhaps, with restitution, we can achieve some degree of reconciliation.
After the unmarked graves were discovered, Archbishop Richard W. Smith of Edmonton, sitting alongside Chief Wilton Littlechild, commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, made a video issuing an apology for the Church’s role in this travesty. In it, he remarked that Canadians have a lot to learn from our First Nations — for example, even though much of modern society is secularizing, “Indigenous peoples refuse to allow the Creator to be eclipsed.”
Maybe to truly reject the mentality of the residential schools, we need to learn not to base our lives on technology. Maybe we should learn from our continent’s ancient cultures and instead follow the teachings of the One they revere as the ‘Great Spirit’.”
Brett Fawcett writes from Canada.