Catholic media has an obigation to make sure all the facts are straight regarding residential schools, such as the one in Kamloops, B.C. CNS photo/Dennis Owen, Reuters

Fr. Raymond de Souza: Catholic media must do better on Indigenous file

By 
  • December 2, 2021

Catholic Register columnist Glen Argan failed. To his credit he admitted it. After writing a gravely inaccurate column on the residential schools issue, he corrected the facts in his next one.

Argan’s column was but one indication of how the Catholic media have failed the Catholic people this past year. While misinformation of the most massive sort — thousands of Indigenous children massacred at residential schools and dumped in mass graves — was circulating in the secular media, Catholic media had an obligation to the truth and to the Catholic faithful to set the record straight.

In his original column Argan excoriated the Canadian bishops for not living up to their commitments in the residential schools settlement. Every major fact he cited was wrong, as he later acknowledged.

“The first responsibility of a journalist is to get the facts right,” wrote Argan. “I failed.”

Why such an utter failure from an experienced journalist?

“I made these errors by relying heavily on reporting in mainstream media, reporting which was not always factual,” he explained. “I thank Archbishop Gerard Pettipas, chair of the board of directors of the Corporation of Catholic Entities Party to the Indian Residential School Settlement, for providing me with his understanding of the issues relevant to the bishops’ involvement.”

His explanation indicates the problem — one which will be more pressing as global attention is focused later this month on the meeting in Rome between Indigenous leaders and Pope Francis. It is a mistake to rely upon “reporting in the mainstream media.”

Argan cited the CBC and the Globe and Mail for his information. Neither has given the Catholic Church fair treatment for decades.

Somehow in his reading of the mainstream media, he neglected my own columns in the National Post, which have been setting the record straight on residential schools since 2015. I have written a dozen columns on the subject this year — many of them in The Catholic Register itself.

I don’t have any special expertise, but I have read the reports, I don’t blindly take what media sources obviously hostile to the Church say, and I make an effort to see if people like Archbishop Pettipas might have another side to the mainstream media story.

Catholics need from Catholic media more in-depth coverage of Indigenous affairs. For example, take a recent cover story in The B.C. Catholic: “Mass celebrated in the Squamish language for the first time.”

It’s a warm-hearted story about an Indigenous priest, Fr. Gary Laboucane — wearing a feathered war bonnet and buckskin vestments — celebrating Mass with some prayers and songs in the Squamish language. The readings were done in English; Deacon Rennie Nahanee said that “it would take many years to translate the readings and prayers, such as the words of consecration, appropriately.”

The are some questions left unanswered. Fr. Laboucane, ordained in 1984, is one of Canada’s best known Indigenous priests, holding a key role in the annual Lac Ste. Anne pilgrimage that draws thousands of Indigenous Catholics every year.

It was, incidentally, at Lac Ste. Anne in 1991 that the Oblates offered their four-page detailed and comprehensive apology for their role in residential schools, long before Canada’s political establishment engaged the issue.

Fr. Laboucane has been offering worship in Indigenous languages for decades. What was novel about the Squamish language Mass was the Squamish, not the use of Indigenous languages per se. Why only now are Squamish Catholics using their language at Mass?

The article offers this explanation: “Thanks to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action, Indigenous languages are enjoying more support and experiencing something of a revival, (Deacon Nahanee) said. To have the Squamish language embraced and spoken at Mass takes it to new heights.”

Heights, but definitely not new.

In 1865 there were Masses for Mohawk-speaking and Algonquin-speaking Catholics. They were published in the Tsiatak Nihonon8entsiake, or Book of Seven Nations, published in Montreal for the Indigenous mission of Lake of Two Mountains.

The missions were permitted to use the vernacular for the sung propers and ordinaries of the Roman Mass — 100 years before Vatican II. Consider that: There were approved Mass settings in Mohawk and Algonquin at a time when a French Mass setting in nearby Montreal would not have been the norm.
Few Catholics know in any depth the story of Catholic-Indigenous relations in Canada. The secular media tells a story that is, in important respects, simply false. Catholic media should do better.

(Fr. de Souza is founding editor of Convivium and a pastor in the Archdiocese of Kingston.)

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