Last spring, when Anne McKee read about unmarked graves being discovered at a former Catholic-run residential school in British Columbia and watched her church fumble the response, she knew she had a choice.
“My husband and I were really on the fence: Do we leave the church or do we work from within until we can’t cope any more?” she said.
Ms. McKee isn’t some fair-weather Catholic; she’s been attending church regularly for more than 20 years and continues to fill the collection plate. To alienate her is to alienate the core of Canada’s Catholics, who numbered nearly 13 million in 2011, according to StatsCan. Like countless other Catholics, Ms. McKee’s faith has been tested by the way her church has sought to avoid responsibility for its role in Canada’s Indigenous residential school system. Many have channelled their frustrations into letters and petitions imploring the clergy to make amends.
Ultimately, Ms. McKee decided to push for change from inside, opting for a strategy of diverting her regular church contributions toward two Indigenous-led groups, Reconciliation Canada and Atlohsa Family Healing Services, until the church provides a papal apology and immediate restitution payments.
“We recognized that voicing displeasure or frustration wasn’t enough,” she said. “There needed to be actions tied to whatever we said. And, clearly, money talks.”
With the recent announcement that the Pope will travel to Canada in an attempt at reconciliation with Indigenous peoples – along with a September apology from the Conference of Canadian Catholic Bishops (CCCB) and a pledge to raise $30-million for reconciliation – the church is finally heeding appeals from the pews. But the belated reaction has only widened a rift between many parishioners and church leaders.
“The delayed and diversionary responses have been really unacceptable,” Ms. McKee said. “We’re impeding the reconciliation process.”
The Catholic Church ran about 60 per cent of Canada’s residential schools from the late 1800s until the late 1960s and 70s, when the Department of Indian Affairs took control of daily operations at many schools. Children were forcibly removed from their families to live at school, often far from home. Many were inadequately fed and clothed in an environment that condoned sexual and physical abuse.
Under the terms of the 2006 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, the church agreed to pay restitution of $29-million in cash, $25-million in church and religious in-kind services and $25-million from a national fundraising campaign. By 2014, the fundraiser had fallen short by $21-million and $1.6-million in cash obligations remained unpaid. The federal government sued to collect the rest, eventually agreeing to a judge’s decision that $1.2-million would settle all outstanding debts.
This spring, the Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc community in B.C. announced the discovery of more than 200 unmarked graves near a former residential school, found using ground-penetrating radar. It was the first of several similar announcements elsewhere in the country. The news touched off a period of intense national mourning and historical interrogation. In the months that followed, the CCCB offered sorrow and prayers, but little in the way of accountability, inviting renewed scrutiny of the Catholic Church’s role in residential schools and its financial commitments.
In June, Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett called on Catholics to “ask their church to do better.”
Numerous churchgoers were already on the case. Paul Schmidt, a retired Catholic school principal from Toronto, wrote to 22 bishops setting out three demands: a “full-throated and unequivocal apology,” financial restitution and efforts to educate Catholics about the ills of residential schools.
“It’s a question of leadership at the CCCB,” Mr. Schmidt said. “Instead of developing genuine prophetic leaders and standing behind those who are marginalized in society, they have hidden behind their structure.”
In September, the CCCB announced a new $30-million fundraising campaign over the next five years. Mr. Schmidt thinks it should be an immediate payment with existing assets. “I don’t think we need another fundraising from the lay people,” he said. “We need to sell one of the seminaries or do something that can generate the funds for these people that we committed to initially.”
CCCB spokesman Jonathan Lesarge says the organization’s recent actions have been “driven by the profound desire of Catholics to walk in solidarity with the First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples of this land.”
“Informed by constructive conversations with Indigenous peoples and Catholic faithful across the country, Canada’s bishops met as part of their plenary assembly in September, issuing a clear national apology and committing to tangible actions that would collectively address the historical and ongoing trauma caused by the residential school system,” Mr. Lesarge added in a written statement.
For some, however, the schism within the church won’t disappear with the recent announcements. Former Ontario Superior Court judge George Valin says the church suffers from clericalism, an attitude that church leaders “don’t need to respond to laity.”
Last summer, the lifelong Catholic co-authored a petition urging the CCCB to invite the Pope to Canada for an apology. Around 59,000 supporters soon backed it.
It was the culmination of five years of quiet advocacy on reconciliation. Mr. Valin started pushing for a papal apology after attending a presentation by Murray Sinclair, former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in 2017. “It was spellbinding, numbing,” he said.
He became an advocate for the commission’s Call to Action No. 58, which requests a papal apology. For the next few years he wrote letters to the CCCB, receiving mostly silence in return. The experience, he said, forced him “to wonder if there was room for me in the church.”
Like Ms. McGee and so many others, he’s decided that internal advocacy is more productive than outright rejection, but much depends on how the church handles further reconciliation efforts, including the Pope’s eventual visit. “If the church is going to survive, the leadership needs to be much more transparent with laity,” he said.