A woman takes a picture of the memorial outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School June 6, 2021. CNS photo/Jennifer Gauthier, Reuters

Editorial: Bishop Henry’s line in the sand

  • June 29, 2023

Canada’s Catholic hierarchy is being reminded why even the “Lord” backed down in a contretemps with Calgary’s Bishop Emeritus Fred Henry. At the very least, they will learn again that His Grace is not for turning.

On the Feast of St. Jean Baptiste, Henry sent out a characteristically feisty e-mail with the subject line “LOCKJAW.” It urged the executive of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops to “immediately issue a formal statement” rejecting the recent bombshell report on missing children and unmarked graves associated with Indian residential schools.

His stated rationale for spreading the word to about 70 recipients on his e-mail list, including The Catholic Register and “a couple of politicians,” was that media criticism of the report has broken the seal of silence on the more questionable claims around the whole issue of Indigenous unmarked graves.

The June 16 call by Kimberly Murray, special advisor to Justice Minister David Lametti, for legislation criminalizing so-called “denialism” of grave sites, missing children and residential schools as genocide, apparently prompted his e-mail missive. But Henry, though retired since 2017, has been active behind the scenes in clerical circles almost since the “discovery” of such graves was made public in May 2021. He has been a champion of independent researcher Nina Green, who, on a regular basis, meticulously challenges claims made by the more extreme Indigenous political voices, and largely echoed unquestioned by mainstream media.

Murray’s overreach report, which got a disturbing head nod of support from Lametti, has only brought into public view the sharpness of Henry’s disagreement with his fellow Catholic churchmen over their conciliatory approach.

“The current strategy of letting the Indigenous voices have their unexamined, uncritiqued (and) unquestioned platform has been  a colossal failure. When an ostrich buries its head in the sand, it also exposes another part of its anatomy for public viewing and it is not a pleasant sight. It is time for our leaders to lead,” he wrote.

Did we say he’s not for turning? Scratch that. He’s wont to come out swinging as he did the very day in 1998 when he arrived in Calgary to take over his new ecclesiastical duties, and before even leaving the airport got into a verbal donnybrook with the then Klein government over its support for legalized gambling. Or as he did wading into a bitter labour dispute at the Calgary Herald by siding with striking journalists and taking on the newspaper’s then proprietor, Conrad Black. It was the soon-to-be Lord Black of Crossharbour who ended up throwing in the towel in their tiff and publicly apologizing for calling Henry a “jumped up twerp of a bishop.”

His no-holds calling out of the CCCB Indigenous strategy is in line with those adventures and likewise with his foray on abortion — an “abomination” — and on his opposition to LGBT curricula in the province’s Catholic schools, which he vowed to hang tough on, though every dog in Alberta bark in its  favour. He is, then, to be taken seriously by the CCCB, especially because he is not without allies within the bishops’ conference. They might lack his public pugnacity but agree with the general sentiment that at least some aspects of the Indigenous reconciliation effort have crossed the line of political shakedown.

At The Register, we have argued that the CCCB has acted prudently and charitably to date with efforts such as the $30 million Indigenous Reconciliation fund. Given the moral imperative, not to mention the massive secular forces ranged against it, the Church in Canada has had no ground, or reason, to do other than seek forgiveness and make restitution for its acknowledged wrongs.

But there comes a time, as Henry’s e-mail says, that outright falsehoods must be deftly contested without progress being lost. As the narrative of the woman taken in adultery shows, even Our Lord was prepared to draw a line in the sand.

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