This article was originally written for our Polish friends of the Kazimierz Lyszczynski Foundation, so some details of Canadian history and geography are explained.
Recently, in May and June of 2021, the discovery of unmarked graves, on grounds where schools for indigenous children had been located, has acutely shaken Canadians, forcing us to confront a very unsavoury part of this country’s history.
Starting in the 19th century and continuing until the late 20th, Canada’s system of mandatory residential schools for children of native peoples—i.e. First Nations, erroneously called “Indians”—did enormous harm both to those children and to the families and communities from which they were forcibly separated. Although education is normally a provincial responsibility in Canada, relations with indigenous peoples are under federal jurisdiction, so these schools were established by the federal government, its Department of Indian Affairs to be specific, which then delegated their operation to various churches and religious organizations, in particular the Catholic Church.
The purpose of the schools, which existed across Canada in most provinces, was to remove indigenous children from the influence of their own culture and assimilate them into the dominant Canadian culture. This residential school system grievously harmed indigenous children by removing them from their families and communities, depriving them of their native languages and exposing many to physical and sexual abuse. In addition, conditions and medical care were poor, leading to serious health problems, such as influenza and tuberculosis, and elevated mortality rates. Precise numbers of school-related deaths remain unknown due to poor record-keeping, but estimates range from 3,000 to 30,000 or more. Over the system’s existence of more than a century, it is estimated that some 150,000 children were placed in residential schools.
The system was instigated in 1876 by the Indian Act under Prime Minister Alexander MacKenzie, although a few such schools existed as early as 1828. With the end of various wars and the advent of peacetime, responsibility for relations with indigenous peoples passed to civilian authorities and away from the military, who had tended to be more sympathetic to indigenous peoples because military alliances had led to friendly relations with some tribes.
Shortly after the 1876 establishment of the system, the government of John A. Macdonald adopted a model similar to that used in United States, a partnership between government and churches. Macdonald was Canada’s first (1867-1873) and third (1878-1891) Prime Minister and has become notorious for his strongly racist attitudes—strong even for a time when racism was the norm—towards native peoples, towards the Chinese, towards the French and basically towards anyone not of British extraction.
Starting in 1894, attendance at such schools became compulsory for First Nations children. Not all were residential, but many were deliberately located far from indigenous communities so that children were obliged to reside in the school. Parents and family members tended to visit frequently, setting up camp outside the school attended by their children, but this was discouraged because it was thought to interfere with assimilation. The last of the schools was not closed until 1997.
In 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a formal apology, on behalf of the Government of Canada, for its role in the residential school system. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established to uncover the truth about the system. In 2015 the TRC published its conclusion that the school system had perpetrated “cultural genocide” motivated by “the belief that the colonizers were bringing civilization to savage people who could never civilize themselves… a belief of racial and cultural superiority.” A permanent National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation was established at the University of Manitoba.
In May of 2021, the remains of 215 children were found, using ground-penetrating radar, buried on the site of a former indigenous residential school in Kamloops in the province of British Columbia (BC). In June, 751 unmarked graves (all identification having been lost or removed) were discovered on the site of the Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan. Later that month, the discovery of 182 unmarked graves near St. Eugene’s Mission School in the Kootenay region of BC was reported. All three schools had been operated by the Catholic Church.
Since then, there has been a wave of acts of apostasy by Canadians baptized as Catholic but who no longer wish to be associated with that Church given its appalling treatment of indigenous children. Furthermore, more than a dozen church buildings, mostly Catholic, some located on native land, have been vandalized and some even destroyed completely by acts of arson. These acts have been denounced by indigenous leaders.
Most schools in the indigenous residential system were operated by the Catholic or Anglican churches. However, several other churches—Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, United Church, etc.—also operated some. In 1986 the United Church issued an official apology for its role. This was followed in 1993 by an apology from the Anglican Church and in 1994 from the Presbyterian.
Various Catholic authorities have issued statements, including an “expression of sorrow”—but not a complete apology—by Pope Benedict XVI when he was visited in 2009 by a delegation of First Nations representatives from Canada. The current Pope Francis has never issued an apology, despite requests from the TRC and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Shortly after the Kamloops discovery, Trudeau called again for the Catholic Church to apologize formally and release all documentation.
In my opinion, exhorting the Catholic or any other Church to apologize formally and take full responsibility for their actions, although a valid endeavour, is basically missing the point. The ultimate responsibility for the indigenous residential school system lies with the federal government. It was the federal government which established it and delegated its operations to various churches. If any of those churches is withholding information or owes financial restitution, the government should use whatever means at its disposal to force that church to comply.
Exhorting the Catholic Church to do the right thing seems particularly futile. The Catholic Church is essentially an international criminal organization which uses the cloak of religion to mask its numerous serious crimes. It should be treated as the mafia which it obviously is.
Entrusting the education, health and welfare of vulnerable children to religious institutions, especially Christian ones, was a particularly inept decision on the part of the Canadian government. Devout adherents of the Abrahamic monotheisms are notorious for the their moral arrogance, their overwhelming conviction of possessing direct knowledge of absolute moral principles, proclaimed by the hypothetical divine king of the universe whom they worship. Combine that moral arrogance with the extreme racism which motivated the founding of schools to assimilate children from an “inferior” race, and we have a recipe for disaster. Only now are we finally beginning to take the full measure of that disaster.
Let us not forget that famous quotation from Blaise Pascal, himself a Catholic theologian: “Men never commit evil so fully and joyfully as when they do it for religious convictions.”
In the flurry of media coverage of this issue, I have yet to come across anyone who has raised the crucial issue of secularism, and in particular its major component, the necessary separation between religions and State. The Canadian State was foolish in the extreme to get churches involved in this educational program. The indigenous residential school system was an extremely bad idea from its inception, an inhumane and racist project. Getting Christian churches involved made it all the worse.