On May 27, the CBC reported that the bodies of 215 First Nations children had been discovered buried under the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia. The school was run by the Catholic religious order the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate until 1969, at which point the Canadian government expropriated it and ran it as a day school for another nine years. As such, the Catholic Church’s checkered legacy in indigenous communities in the Americas is inevitably implicated in the discovery. Furthermore, a companion piece to the CBC’s reporting warns that what happened to these children was likely not an isolated incident.
The Bishop of Kamloops, Joseph Nguyen, put out a statement lamenting the abuses of the past—which is fine, but it’s nothing that indigenous people haven’t heard before. If it did not lead to lasting reconciliation then, there is no reason why it would now. Both Bishop Nguyen and the Archbishop of Vancouver, J. Michael Miller—the metropolitan see of which Kamloops is a suffragan—avoided acknowledging culpability for the apparent atrocities committed against indigenous peoples through the residential schools on the part of the Church. This avoidance strikes me as more and more difficult to justify every time it pops up.
You might remember that just a few months ago D.W. Lafferty, who is Canadian, wrote about the legacy of the residential schools for Where Peter Is. Lafferty—in my opinion—did not mince words when he wrote:
The overriding goal of the system, to which the religious groups running the schools gladly adhered, was to stop the transmission of Indigenous culture and create good, ‘civilized,’ Christian Canadians. What it did was create a legacy of psychological ruin. It inflicted, in miniature and on children specifically, many of the cruelties of North American colonialism as a whole. Edmund Metatawabin writes, ‘The policy was universal, or at least the same across North America. Kill the Indian to Save the Man. Turned out when you killed the Indian, you just killed the Indian.’
Lafferty concluded in February that Pope Francis should “reconsider the call to offer a personal apology to the Indigenous peoples of Canada.” After all, Pope Francis and his predecessors have apologized on behalf of the whole Church for atrocities carried out by religious orders in other times and places, including against other indigenous populations such as those in South America. Why should the treatment of Canada’s First Nations be any different? True, North American indigenous peoples today don’t always have the intimate cultural connections to the Church that exist in Latin America or Ireland—but why should this be any excuse?
Seeing this recent news, I’m moved to join, and reiterate, the previous call in Where Peter Is for Pope Francis to live up to his stated vision for the Church by apologizing, as he has in other cases, for the Church’s broad involvement in these atrocities, rather than acting as if the past is unrelated to the present.
If you missed Lafferty’s “Truth and Reconciliation” post earlier this year, read it in full now.
Image: Kamloops Indian Residential School (ca. 1930), Public Domain, accessed via Wikimedia Commons.
Nathan Turowsky is a native New Englander and now lives in Upstate New York. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in the nonprofit sector. He writes at Silicate Siesta.