A group visits a makeshift memorial on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School. CNS photo/Jennifer Gauthier, Reuters

When the truth spawns hysteria

  • January 27, 2022

The deuterocanonical book of Ecclesiasticus is filled with advice about sex, sin, friendship and charity. It almost overflows with instruction on speaking out properly in public.

“A slip of the tongue is worse than a slip on the pavement,” its author Jesus, son of Sirach, counsels his own son. “The wicked will go to ruin just as suddenly as a person slips and falls.”

Lest that be misunderstood as urging a lifelong vow of silence, however, there is an equally forceful admonishment to give voice against what is plainly wrong: “You can lose all your self-respect by being reluctant to speak up in the presence of stupidity.”

None of its sayings captures so perfectly the conundrum of our own time than the proverbial paradox it presents on choosing the appropriate time to say what needs to be said.

“A wise person will not speak until the right moment, but a bragging fool doesn’t know when that time is,” Jesus, son of Sirach, advises.

Clearly, he had never encountered the Old Testament equivalent of “wokeness” or Twitter mobbing or mainstream media ravenousness to savage reputations by piling on those who express unfashionable ideas as implicit proof of their bragging foolishness.

Folly, in such an atmosphere, becomes indistinguishable from good faith. It redefines prudence as a virtual obligation to avoid punishment, however unjust and however much it seems to come from nowhere. That in turn leads to the kind of leadership guidance that came recently from the vice president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.

In an interview with The Catholic Register’s Michael Swan, speaking on how to side-step the politico-social quagmire of commenting on Indian Residential Schools, Calgary’s Bishop Bill McGrattan recommended letting opinions on the matter be voiced entirely by Indigenous people whose communities suffered their evils. While some might bristle at the implications for free speech, in the current context, Bishop McGrattan was absolutely right.

Unfortunately, the timing of such counsel was too late for Msgr. Owen Keenan, who found himself dragged into a devastating controversy when his words during a homily at Merciful Redeemer Parish in Mississauga, Ont., were, he and parishioners who were there attest, misconstrued to suggest good excused the residential school system. The ensuing merciless media uproar led him to resign as Merciful Redeemer’s pastor, sparked vandalism against the church, forced Keenan to follow police advice for his safety and has dogged him for months.

Parsing the particularities of his every subject and predicate isn’t the point here. What matters is that a priest preaching from the pulpit with a good faith intention of expressing love for the Church suddenly has life overturned and, worse, his very humanity assaulted to an extent that it damaged his ability to carry out his call from God.

He has been branded as the Catholic priest who believes good excused residential schools, or even that residential schools were good. There is no redemption allowed, regardless of his efforts to go to the media to express his actual sentiments based in empathy for those who suffered the evils of those institutions.

Or as Keenan captured it with clarity when I spoke with him recently: “To be reduced to (that) identity even if what I said was true, but that I could have said better, is hard to bear.”

Such de-humanizing has become an intolerable consequence of the unquestionably right and proper project of pursuing the truth about residential schools. Or rather, it’s the effect of our era’s erasing the once bright line between speaking with wisdom and being a bragging fool.

For retired Manitoba judge Brian Giesbrecht, the damage extends far beyond individual harm to risking a national incapacity to discern fact from imagination. A former legal aid lawyer, family court judge and Acting Chief Judge, Giesbrecht is a serious student of claims that hundreds of bodies have been found at residential schools. Despite the national, and international, wave of claims last spring that the finding of bodies in “mass graves” at the schools put Canada among the ranks of the world’s genocidal states, not one body has yet been identified much less exhumed, he notes.

“It’s really interfering with our ability to get at the truth,” Giesbrecht said in a recent interview. “There’s this absolutely amazing story that there are thousands of children missing all over the country, buried every which places.

“Our group has found the birth certificates, for instance, for all of the children in B.C. who are claimed to be missing. They’re not missing at all. They died in various ways, in many cases years after they went to residential schools. But Canadians are befuddled by all these stories. It’s almost a national hysteria at this point.”

Giesbrecht pinpoints as a prime cause media befuddlement at how to be “respectful” of Indigenous people, culture and experience while at the same time asking basic journalistic questions. When the round of “bodies in the orchard” stories erupted in Kamloops, B.C., last May, with the claim that ground-penetrating radar had turned up remains of 215 children in unmarked graves, no reporter bothered to ask how that many children could simply “disappear” without their parents raising Cain, Giesbrecht points out.

“If you had 215 children that disappeared, you’d have 215 sets of parents who were desperate with grief, who would be complaining to the police, to the (band) chief, to whoever would listen. No (journalists) even asked about that, almost as if they have a fear of asking anything that smacks of culture or the sacred.”

Giesbrecht, who spent a vast part of his legal career working with Indigenous people, says his real concern is they are hurt worst by the media, political and social failure to ask truth-seeking questions about the “missing bodies in unmarked graves” and much else. What has replaced such fact-finding inquiries  is a belief in Indigenous people having a stand-alone form of “knowing” that elevates storytelling above actually sussing out what happened.

“Can you imagine saying in the context of, say, a murder investigation ‘well, my friends and I have a special way of knowing so we don’t need evidence or facts?’ We’d say, ‘what the heck does that mean?’ ”   

Put another way, we’d follow the urging of Ecclesiasticus to speak up, at the right moment, about something that sounds an awful lot like folly. When, we have to wonder, will that time return?

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