The discovery of unmarked graves across Canada last year led to renewed calls for healing and reconciliation. Register file photo

Evading Church role harms reconciliation

  • January 15, 2022

Repeated comments from bishops, priests and highly placed Catholics minimizing damage caused by the residential school system risk torpedoing efforts at reconciliation, warns a high-profile Indigenous scholar and former judge.

“It seems to me they’re passing along, internally, a sort of ‘It was really not all that bad and you should be grateful for the education’ line, or moreover a message of ‘We were just the handmaiden to a colonial project,’ ” said Mary-Ellen Turpel-Lafond.

“None of these are acceptable. Obviously, the Church in particular should be taking a strong position now to correct and promote truth and reconciliation — not to pander to this minimizing and denying the true and complete impact of the schools.”

Turpel-Lafond, a University of British Columbia law professor and director of the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre, said remarks made in December by both the president and vice president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops are prime examples of the Church tending to justify, evade or minimize responsibility for residential schools.

CCCB vice president Bishop Bill McGrattan acknowledges any comments about perceived benefits of the residential schools should come only from Indigenous people themselves, not from outside the communities that suffered the trauma.  At the same time, McGrattan says, there’s a need to recognize such opinions are most often expressed within Church circles due to a lingering lack of awareness rather than overt desire to soft peddle history.

“I don’t think we want to, in a sense, minimize,” McGrattan said three weeks after a press conference in which his own remarks courted controversy. “We have to realize that maybe there is a need for a greater education and a greater awareness.”

At a Dec. 2 press conference to introduce Alberta delegates who had been scheduled to travel to Rome for an audience with Pope Francis before COVID scuttled the trip, McGrattan spoke of recollections he had heard from residential school survivors. He said those who spoke “recognize they had the opportunity to learn” despite the experience of the schools themselves.

“But in that learning, we also acknowledge that their culture, sometimes their spirituality and their language was repressed,” he said at the time.

McGrattan now regrets his use of the word “sometimes,” given that school policies universally forbade the use of Indigenous languages, punished students for practising any form of Indigenous spirituality, repressed Indigenous cultures and cutting students off from family and community during the crucial years of their education.

“I would basically allow for the Indigenous and First Nations people to make such comments,” he told The Catholic Register recently. “It’s not for us to make those judgments.”

Turpel-Lafond, a member of the Muskeg Cree First Nation and the first Indigenous judge appointed in Saskatchewan, noted Calgary’s bishop is far from the only figure among Canadian Catholics to have stumbled  while speaking about residential schools.

In June, Mississauga pastor Msgr. Owen Keenan was relieved of his post weeks after the discovery of 215 unmarked graves next to the former Kamloops Indian School after using his pulpit to tell parishioners to ignore media reports about the residential schools.

CCCB president Bishop Raymond Poisson also made a faux pas when he spoke to a Vatican News interviewer about his experience in listening circles with residential school survivors since 2018.

“It’s sometimes terrible, sometimes. But also, people say that there’s not too bad education. Not all is bad,” Poisson said.

He also argued that the residential schools are largely an English Canadian idea in line with the English conquest. “There’s the conquest of the English people (who said), ‘We must give Canada just one mentality, just one language, just one faith.’ And that’s why they did this residential school.”

Quebec Catholics had little to do with residential schools, Poisson said: “Residential schools are more concentrated in the West of the country, on the English side of the country.”

Montreal Jesuit Fr. Gilles Mongeau emphatically rejects the two solitudes residential school idea.

“Msgr. Poisson’s position fails almost immediately because of the simple, historical fact of the Quebec Act of 1774, wherein Great Britain enacted religious and civil freedoms for the citizens of the former New France,” he wrote in an e-mail. “The idea that there is a simple will that can be reduced to one mentality, one language, one faith on the English side is belied by the willingness to allow Quebec its own law, language and religion.”

Worse, added Quebec religious historian Frédéric Barriault, Quebec’s sense of itself as a colonized people more sinned against than sinning sometimes stands in the way of Quebeckers taking responsibility for the residential schools.

“The idea that Quebeckers may themselves be colonists and, to a certain extent, oppressors, is rather new in their collective conscience,” Barriault said. “Though the residential schools were a WASP, federal idea, it wouldn’t have gone very far without the active collaboration of French-Canadian priests, nuns and bishops.” 

French-born Oblate Bishop Vital Grandin was a major architect of the residential school system in Canada’s northwest, and he relied on a network of Quebec-born priests and sisters to execute his plans.  Quebec’s four residential schools weren’t established until the 1950s, however, after school attendance became compulsory in 1947.

Laval University theologian Fr. Gilles Routhier does defend Poisson when it comes to the record of the Anglo-dominated federal government after Confederation.

“The Canadian vision of the country at that time was to have a uniform country, not leaving space for diverse culture, aboriginal and French,” he said. “They try, at that same period, to assimilate the French population.”

But Routhier does not want Quebec to take a pass on truth and reconciliation.

“It doesn’t mean that they cannot be oppressors or racists. That is contradicted by the reality. Nationalism could also lead to racism,” he said.

He believes the Quebec Church is ready to face the residential school history.

“At the level of the bishops’ conference, the Quebeckers are more open to recognize the sin of the past than the bishops from Western Canada, partly because the reality of residential schools is more a problem in the western part of the country,” he said.

For her part, Turpel-Lafond finds it disturbing that the Church is still disputing the historical record on residential schools six years after the six-volume Truth and Reconciliation Commission report was published.

“Having clerics in positions, particularly high positions, continue to repeat this even on the verge of taking a delegation to Rome, it’s certainly — tone deaf would be polite, morally problematic would be a bit more severe, but absolutely outrageous would be the stronger response,” she said.

Turpel-Lafond questions why all Catholic clergy, especially bishops, are not required to undergo cultural safety and cultural humility training led by Indigenous experts.

CCCB spokesperson Jonathan Lesarge said the bishops’ conference would be interested in training but does not mandate it.

“The CCCB is always looking for ways to better support its members,” Lesarge said. “We would be interested in learning about additional measures that can be taken to strengthen their understanding of the communities that they serve. We stand strongly behind the Christian precept to love one’s neighbour as oneself and to practice and promote the virtues of humility and charity.”

The next generation of priests is learning more about the role diverse cultures play in people’s spiritual lives and the legacy of residential schools, said St. Augustine’s Seminary professor of systematic and pastoral theology Josephine Lombardi.

“We study the impact of intergenerational trauma, using the Canadian Indigenous community as an example, showing how trauma impacts future generations,” she said.

But Turpel-Lafond says seminary classroom discussions are different from Indigenous-led training offered by the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, UBC’s Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre and others who train judges, lawyers, doctors.

Comments (1)

This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

I don't know what kind of sleazy reporting that the Catholic Register is running and this particular article is certainly reminding me that you are running a tabloid that prints rumors and false news.
From your article I quote:
In June,...

I don't know what kind of sleazy reporting that the Catholic Register is running and this particular article is certainly reminding me that you are running a tabloid that prints rumors and false news.
From your article I quote:
In June, Mississauga pastor Msgr. Owen Keenan was relieved of his post weeks after the discovery of 215 unmarked graves next to the former Kamloops Indian School after using his pulpit to tell parishioners to ignore media reports about the residential schools.
This quote is totally a piece of fiction which you have written. I was personally in attendance at that particular Mass and not one word of what you have written was said by Msgr. Owen. Where is your evidence and why are you slandering a good priest? You deserve to go out of business for the trash that you report and you certainly should be charged for the disgrace you bring to the name Catholic. This is not journalism when you don't get your facts straight and instead release your thoughts as truth. Maybe you should change your name to rag newspaper. You owe Msgr. Owen an apology and a retraction in big print I am so upset for what little regard you have for a person's good name. You will certainly feel the repercussions of your thoughtless actions.

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