The residential school system and the damage it did during the more than the century and a half it was imposed upon the Indigenous Peoples of Turtle Island came close to succeeding in its goal of expunging the culture, traditions and languages of the first people of this land. For more than 150 years, children were yanked from the bosom of their families, taken by strangers to an unfamiliar environment where stern figures schooled in Victorian-era mores imposed an alien lifestyle to expunge the “Indian” from their very souls.
For all of its supposed “altruistic” intent of bettering the lives of its charges, the residential school system was the front line of a brutal and genocidal government policy aimed at removing from existence the Indigenous people, and by extension those sovereign nations upon whose territories the English colonies and later nation of Canada were founded.
The governments of the day sought allies to implement its policy of cultural extinction and found them among the churches. Catholic, Anglican, Methodist (later United) and a host of smaller denominations already had an infrastructure in place and experience in proselytizing their faiths among the many Indigenous nations. They eagerly stepped up to aid in the effort of “civilizing the savage” all the better to bring their souls to a Christian god.
Civilizing to the Victorian mind meant not sparing the rod and Catholic nuns, priests and brothers, along with protestant pastors and other missionaries, were zealous in those measures.
The residential school system also provided church administrators in all denominations with the perfect dumping ground, out of sight and largely out of mind, for all of those “problem” employees whose presence in urban (white) settlements were causing scandals. There, predators of all kinds found open season amongst Indigenous children.
Those children and their families had nowhere to turn for justice and were viewed as something less than human by a society whose mechanisms of law remain steeped in systemic racism to this very day.
That insufficient funds were allocated for maintaining the residential schools, with the inevitable result of malnutrition, overcrowding, disease further weakening the Indigenous children in their charge, was just another instance of the racist double standard by which such things were measured.
The Roman Catholic church and its administrators, the cardinals, bishops, priests, lay brothers, mothers superior, nuns and lay personnel were not alone in their failings, to be sure. The entire non-Native society that swamped First Nations traditional territories across Turtle Island, all denominations without exception, believed in what they were doing and were unwilling, or unable, to fathom how that could be wrong.
So it came to pass that a mirror was held up to the horrid actions of the past and churches began to apologize for their role in a blatantly genocidal attempt to solve the “Indian” question. The United Church was first out of the block in 1986, with the Anglicans following in 1991. The Catholic orders and bishops have offered apologies, and the previous Pope also apologized in 2009, but did so from Rome. Now, Pope Francis has offered an apology on Canadian soil, as had been one of the primary recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Residential Schools. These are a start, but they can only be a start.
You cannot come to reconciliation between parties without an admission of guilt by the perpetrators of past transgressions. It is nigh onto impossible to forgive someone who will not admit they did anything wrong—turning the other cheek notwithstanding.
There is a bizarre disconnect within the hierarchy of organized churches, the administration responsible for the smooth operation and sustainability of the religious machine, and the goal of spreading the Word of God and love for thy neighbour, a disconnect that tends to allow impossibly evil actions to be swept under the table, hidden away in remote hinterlands and buried in unmarked graves in order to preserve the supposed “greater good” of the church’s fiscal health.
Mitigation of responsibility and complicity becomes paramount in order to limit liability of the church. Thus records keepers obfuscate and delay the release of records, funds are allocated more to offset legal costs than to redress wrongs or repair damages done, continuing the evil through bureaucratic means. This must stop.
The Pope’s apology is but a beginning. Unless concrete steps to repair the relationship between Indigenous communities and the church follow, the longer those steps take to implement, the weight and meaning of any apology will be diluted. This stands for the church, but also our nation’s federal, provincial and municipal governments and the corporate world that drives our economy.
It’s all fine and good to say you are sorry for what you have done, but you have to show that you really mean your regret through concrete action—or your pretty words will soon be eaten.