First of all, I am going to take a leaf from my blog friend Melanie (http://sparksfromacombustiblemind.com) and warn you, dear reader, that controversial opinions follow. I don’t wish to offend, but just so that you know, there are religious and political speed bumps in this post.
Let me start by saying that I am a fiercely proud Canadian. I served in the military. I have done lots of volunteering. I like the values that have developed here and I grew to appreciate them even more by living in other countries.
But I have been very upset and troubled by what has been unfolding with respect to our indigenous peoples.
If you’re Canadian, you will know what I’m referring to: all the children’s bodies that have been discovered in unmarked graves at three former residential schools.
If you’re not Canadian, here’s a quick history: from the 1870s to the 1980s, the federal government decided that in order to destroy indigenous peoples’ languages and culture and force them to assimilate, all children between ages 4-16 should be taken from their families and required to attend residential schools. About 150,000 indigenous children were literally stolen from their families and compelled to attend; sometimes these schools were hundreds of kilometres away from their homes and the children were rarely allowed back home to visit.
In this tragic tale, what’s the most tragic is that many, many of these children never survived the schools to return home at all, and their families were never given any kind of explanation. The federal government contracted with several Christian churches to run these schools: Anglican, United, Presbyterian and Roman Catholic. The vast majority of these schools – 75% – were run by the Roman Catholic Church. These Catholic residential schools were also operated the longest and were the last to close.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission detailed the mistreatment at these schools, including the emotional, physical and sexual abuse that occurred. It also found that the crowded living conditions, poor nutrition and substandard medical care made the children more likely to die of disease and infection.
When this barbaric practice was finally fully stopped (this torture continued in some places longer than in others) the Anglican, United and Presbyterian churches apologised, turned over their records, and tried to make amends. The federal government apologised. The Roman Catholic Church? Nothing. Nada. Zero. No apologies. No records. No acknowledgment of any kind of responsibility.
It was long believed that there were the unmarked graves of children on many of the schools’ grounds, and now explicit proof is being found with the use of ground-penetrating radar. In the last month, more than 1000 graves in three different locations have been found. I am not surprised; I expect that now the search has begun, many, many more will be found.
I have very strong feelings about this: anger, embarrassment, guilt, sadness, and outrage.
I am mad at my government and I’m mad at the Roman Catholic Church. I was raised in that church.
But its actions have been despicable, it hasn’t apologised or taken any responsibility, and if it were any other organisation, it would be disbanded and its assets seized. At the very least, our government should immediately remove its tax-free status.
Meanwhile across the country, more and more Catholic Churches are being burned to the ground in the dead of night.
But instead of taking action, our PM stands around, shuffling his feet and spouting platitudes about how we need to behave ourselves. He’s a Catholic, and he hasn’t said or done anything about this horrible institution.
Some people are saying that Canada Day should be cancelled in favour of a day of mourning, reflection and amendment, and in many locations, it has been. Others say that this is nothing more than “cancel culture” and that we can’t blame historical figures for behaving in the context of their time.
I disagree. Human behaviour is human behaviour. Sir John A MacDonald, our first PM, knew exactly what he was doing when he helped to design the residential school system, and so did all the others who were also a part of this. His greed, his need for control and his sense of entitlement and superiority drove him and the many others who participated, including the Roman Catholic Church.
I work with many indigenous people, and I know first-hand how awful they have had it. As a result, I frequently experience white guilt when I really consider the fact that although I, personally, don’t bear any direct responsibility for what the colonialists did, every day I reap the “rewards” of what they stole. So does anyone who chooses to make this country their home.
But I’m not ashamed, and I’m not ashamed of my country. Shame won’t solve anything – it’s just a revolving door.
What will help is for us to face our past, squarely and honestly, without trying to sugar-coat or side-step, and without allowing a religious institution to escape taking responsibility because it’s religious. It’s the only way we can support our indigenous peoples. It’s the only way we can show our respect. And maybe, it’s how we can finally turn to them and say, “yes, I get it now. I understand.”
This Canada Day, I won’t be having a party while my friends are in mourning.