The word “shocking” has come up a lot in news stories about the discovery of the remains of 215 children at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops; though, to anyone familiar with the history of such schools, there was nothing remotely surprising about it.
That most of the country was “shocked” by the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation revelation of unmarked graves speaks to our collective ignorance about our country’s past and the sins of commission and omission made by those in positions of authority who sought to bury the truth.
The abuse of Indigenous children by both church and state that occurred for more than a century at residential schools across Canada occurred on multiple levels, in both life and death. Children removed from their families by the state and entrusted to clergy were subjected to such physical, sexual and emotional abuse that some Indigenous youth took their own lives to escape the horror. Many others ran away, only to die from exposure. Others died of disease.
“The general [Department of] Indian Affairs policy was to hold the schools responsible for burial expenses when a student died at school. The school generally determined the location and nature of that burial. Parental requests to have children’s bodies returned home for burial were generally refused as being too costly,” reads the 2015 final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, which estimated that as many as 6,000 children died at residential schools.
“In short, throughout the system’s history, children who died at school were buried in school or mission cemeteries, often in poorly marked graves. The closing of the schools has led, in many cases, to the abandonment of these cemeteries.”
No institution, not even the government, knows more about what happened at Canada’s residential schools than the Catholic Church. But the Catholic orders that ran most residential schools and the bishops who oversee the church in Canada today have employed a plethora of dilatory measures to avoid revealing the truth.
That an institution known for maintaining meticulous records continues to offer excuses about the difficulties encountered in locating, translating or digitizing church documents about residential schools makes its inertia even more disgraceful.
The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, which ran the Kamloops school, offered after the discovery to “commit to do more” to make its records available. Yet the Oblates and other church authorities have consistently frustrated the efforts of Indigenous families, investigators and researchers to uncover the truth.
Given the church’s track record of obfuscation and obstruction, it is no surprise that Indigenous people are still waiting for an apology from the Pope.
In 2015, the final report of the TRC called on Pope Francis to issue an apology to survivors, families and Indigenous communities for the church’s role in the “spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children in Catholic-run residential schools” within one year of the report’s publication. It asked also that the apology “be delivered by the Pope in Canada.”
Despite the good-faith efforts of some clergy to push for one, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops appears to consider a formal apology too risky. To be clear, this has little to do with theology. The CCCB seems to have far more worldly concerns about the potential legal consequences of any apology that acknowledges the abuses committed in the church’s name by clergy at residential schools.
So, instead, Indigenous people are left to suffer yet another indignity.
“I don’t know whether seeking always some big and dramatic thing is the way forward,” Cardinal Thomas Collins, the Archbishop of Toronto, told the CBC’s Rosemary Barton on Sunday. “I think the much more important thing is the day-to-day work, quietly, gently.”
His statement provides yet more evidence that the Catholic hierarchy has learned nothing despite the abuse scandals of recent decades. A hush-hush culture remains endemic throughout the church. Secrecy is its modus operandi.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reiterated the TRC demand for an apology during a 2017 private audience with the Pope at the Vatican. But, in 2018, then-CCCB president Bishop Lionel Gendron wrote in a letter to Indigenous people that “after carefully considering the request and extensive dialogue with the bishops of Canada, [Pope Francis] felt he could not personally respond.”
Read into that statement what you may. To many, it reeked of the church’s own internal politics and basic unwillingness to take responsibility for its actions.
On Sunday, Francis addressed the “shocking news” from Kamloops from the balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square: “May the political and religious authorities continue to collaborate with determination to shed light on this sad affair and commit humbly to a path of reconciliation.”
One can only pray.
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