Bernadette Hardaker is a writer living in Orangeville, Ont. Between 1985 and 1988, she covered “Native affairs,” as it was called then, for CBC Radio.
In my six decades, I have been many kinds of Catholic: a cradle Catholic, a confirmed Catholic, a convenient Catholic, a lapsed Catholic, a renewed Catholic and a conflicted one. Now I am nothing but ashamed.
Ashamed that I have upheld an institution that dodges and weaves instead of taking responsibility. Ashamed that it has required the reported discovery of the remains of 966 children to push the church into possible action when it has had decades to do the right thing. Ashamed that Canadian Catholics can raise tens of millions of dollars for cathedrals, churches and other capital projects across the country, but can’t offer enough to keep a $25-million promise to compensate the survivors of the cruelty the church inflicted.
This is more than hypocrisy; more than moral bankruptcy. This is sin, of the most mortal kind.
The Catholic Church has had plenty of chances to apologize to First Nations, Métis and Inuit for the harms it perpetrated against thousands of innocent children in its care over the decades it administered Canada’s residential schools. It could have begged forgiveness when Pope John Paul II came to Fort Simpson, NWT, in 1987; or when the Anglican Church apologized in 1993, the Presbyterians in 1994 and the United Church in 1998. It could have apologized after Stephen Harper did so on behalf of the Government of Canada in 2008. It could have apologized after the Truth and Reconciliation report was released in 2015, or after ground-piercing radar located the hidden remains of 215 children on the site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School in May, or after 751 more were located east of Regina on the site of the Marieval Indian Residential School in June.
Indigenous leaders have meetings booked with Pope Francis for December. We’ve been told it takes time to arrange these things – even longer to plan a possible visit to Canada to apologize in person. But Francis has expedited apologies before, for the egregious sins of the Catholic Church in Bolivia (2015) and Ireland (2018). Why wait now?
For generations, Indigenous families have waited and wept for children who never came home from schools they were forced to attend, where their language was forbidden and their culture quashed; where many were starved, raped, beaten and neglected. According to the TRC report, it’s estimated that 150,000 children between 1831 and 1996 attended at least 139 residential schools across Canada, 60 per cent of which were run by Catholic religious orders. No one is certain how many thousands of children died in residential schools over those years. What is certain is that many more deaths will be uncovered in the months ahead, reopening wounds that haven’t had a chance to heal.
We can do more as Canadians than be ashamed, feel guilty or wring our hands. Instead, we can work to understand the trauma these children suffered from the accounts of survivors. We can know the effects of their loss in the brokenness of communities. We can share the pain of Indigenous communities, listen to their stories and do everything in our power to be better informed, more respectful, co-operative and responsive. We can hold our leaders accountable, and take our own path when they fail us.
If every one of the 12.8 million Catholics in Canada contributed a toonie today, then the church would have the $25-million it promised to raise from Canadian Catholics after signing a side deal as part of the Indian Residential School Survivors Agreement in 2005. Instead, after raising less than $4-million, a court ruled that because of a miscommunication, the church could walk away from the rest of the compensation it owed.
Asking all Catholics to help is a great idea, but don’t ask me – I won’t be dropping anything into the collection basket any more. I’ll be donating directly to an Indigenous agency, because the only kind of Catholic I am now is a former one.
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