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Over the past fortnight, some dozen churches in Canada, many serving indigenous people, were torched. A dozen more, most in non-indigenous contexts, were vandalized. “Burn it all down,” tweeted the director of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, to supportive cheers. The chaos ensued after discovery of the remains of hundreds of indigenous youths, buried near the residential schools in which they were enrolled under a policy backed by the Indian Act of 1876. Amendments to this act in 1894 and 1920 made attendance at residential or industrial schools compulsory for those who lacked access to day schools. The last of the former, many of which were operated by the Catholic Church, closed its doors in 1996. Over more than a century, about 140,000 children passed through these schools. Upward of four thousand—perhaps as many as ten thousand—passed away while attending them or expired soon afterward. 

How could this be? Who is responsible? Are the religious organizations who operated the residential schools the real culprits, as many suppose? A careful examination shows that supposition to be flawed. The tragedy, and the crimes it involved—crimes some are falsely characterizing as genocide—began with government-mandated violation of parental rights, an error gaining currency again today. 

At the time of its establishment, the residential schools policy was seen as a progressive one. A Methodist minister, Egerton Ryerson (1803–82), was appointed chief superintendent of education for Upper Canada in 1844. He introduced school boards, standardized textbooks, and free education for all. The Department of Indian Affairs quickly sought his advice and began to employ his methods in order to integrate native children into the new world in which they were to live. He held that indigenous peoples should receive an education in denominational, English-only boarding schools, a system that entailed uprooting children from their tribal homes and customs. 

The first residential school, the Mohawk Institute in Brantford, Ontario, had opened in 1831. By Confederation in 1867, there were eight such schools. State support for mission schools became available in 1874. With the advent of compulsory education, the schools multiplied. By 1931 there were eighty in operation. Funding was enrollment-based and very parsimonious. Living conditions became crowded and less healthy. Children arrived already suffering from tuberculosis or other illnesses. When children died at the schools, they were seldom sent home for proper burial. The government wouldn't, and the churches couldn't, pay for that; nor could the families. So instead it was shallow graves and wooden crosses in fields outside the schools. And though the education was generally good and gratefully received by some, record-keeping (or the successful preservation of records) was remarkably bad. The little wooden crosses and cemetery fences, of course, are long gone. Hence the uncertainty as to numbers and names and even locations of those buried.

Recently, however, ground-scanning devices have begun to supply locations and numbers. On May 28, we learned that there were 215 unmarked graves at the site of the residential school in Kamloops, B.C.; on June 25, that in Saskatchewan there were 751 where the Marieval Residential School had been; on June 30, that 182 had been discovered at St. Eugene’s Mission near Cranbrook, where I grew up. 

On a recent Sunday, when we arrived at Mass in our picturesque Quebec parish, there at the end of the drive stood a lone protester, holding up a sign reading 751. A small pair of shoes, the symbol of genocide, lay at his feet. I enquired of this young man what he knew of all this and what he hoped for as a response from ordinary Catholics. He had not been misled by the scurrilous suggestion, planted early in the irresponsible press, that these were mass graves, as if there had been mass murder. But even he did not appear to have much grasp of the requisite details. 

How did these children die?  Who was responsible for their deaths and why are their graves (these are not mass graves) unmarked? What attempts have been made at redress? What are churches and governments doing or not doing? To such questions he had no ready answers. He hoped that Pope Francis and the Canadian bishops would apologize rather than merely express regret; and that the putatively wealthy Catholic Church would sacrifice some of its properties in order to help indigenous peoples get things they are still lacking, such as potable water. 

We began discussing these things, which are complex enough that we never arrived at those rotten apples in the staffing barrels—clerical, religious, and lay people who traumatized the children in their care emotionally, physically, or sexually, as if the trauma of being taken from their homes and homelands were not trauma enough. In the public mind, naturally, these things tend to run together: child seizure, child neglect, child abuse, child deaths. They need to be separated out if each is to be given the attention it deserves.  

Unfortunately, the present campaign seems more interested in manipulating public sentiment than in achieving public clarity. Information on local gravesites has been dropped piecemeal into the collective psyche, as if these finds represented new and shocking knowledge rather than confirmation of things already established. Little effort has been made to explain that what Professor Scott Hamilton called for six years ago, during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) hearings, is finally being undertaken. Indeed, the ignorant are being left to think that we are only now discovering that a great many children died during the course of their residential school education.  

Lines are being blurred, categories confused. The term adopted by the commission to describe the context and effects of that education, “cultural genocide,” has begun to appear without its adjective. Even the careful statement on June 24 by National Chief Perry Bellegarde, which wisely avoided the noun itself, was released under the header, “Horrific discoveries of unmarked graves demands urgent action.” That header left more than a hint of wanton and, indeed, deliberate destruction of young lives. 

Perhaps the intention of the exercise is to capitalize on Bill C-15 (the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act that received royal assent on June 21),  driving home the point that the country must now act in more concerted fashion to effect changes. If so, the end does not justify the means. The fires this campaign has provoked and the hatred for Christians (especially Catholics) it has fanned cannot be deemed so much unfortunate collateral damage. Sentiment is a dangerous thing. Truth and reconciliation both suffer when it is weaponized. 

Take, for example, the call for a papal apology. The Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement was signed in 2006. The process of formal apologies for which it called had already begun in 1991. This was culminated, observes Raymond de Souza, by Prime Minister Harper in 2008 and by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009, when he received a native delegation and “expressed his sorrow and anguish for the ‘deplorable' conduct of those Catholics who caused immense pain and suffering to those in residential schools.” As Fr. de Souza says, “that this was a suitable counterpart to the federal government apology was understood by everyone—Indigenous media, Catholic media, secular media.” 

In 2015, however, the TRC completed its six-volume Final Report on the residential schools, based primarily on a patient hearing of many heartbreaking stories. (Such was its mandate. It was not tasked with a full analysis of the historical record or even with an unbiased sampling of indigenous responses to residential school experience; nor was it given unfettered access to federal archives.) Among its ninety-four recommendations was a demand that the new pope, Francis, be summoned to Canada more or less immediately to make an apology in situ “for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children in Catholic-run residential schools.” This is being reiterated today as if nothing happened in 2009. Even C-15 trades in myth as much as history.

Back to our story:  In the era of the residential schools, medicine was relatively primitive while pandemics were common. The Spanish flu took people in the prime of life at a ten percent fatality rate. Tuberculosis was slower, but for natives still more deadly. According to The Globe and Mail, documents in the National Archives reveal that children were dying from it “at alarming rates.” The Department of Indian Affairs sent its chief medical officer, Peter Bryce, to investigate. His visits to fifteen schools in western Canada found that “at least 24 per cent of students had died from tuberculosis over a 14-year period.” He informed the department in 1907 that the schools were failing to separate the healthy from the sick.

Two years later Bryce submitted a second report, recommending that the government take responsibility for administering the schools. For his troubles his position was abolished; only in 1969 would his advice be followed. After retirement in 1922 he authored The Story of a National Crime. The pleas of other doctors were likewise ignored. “Evidently somebody has mistaken our residential school for a TB sanatorium,” complained Dr. MacInnis in a letter from Nova Scotia to Indian Affairs. This he thought “very unfair to the children who are clean and well.”

Today, in our own pandemic, we seem to be getting all this backward, treating the healthy as if they were sick rather than the sick as if they were healthy, leading to new national crimes. But my point is that the old national crime was indeed national; that is, political and economic, not primarily religious. Life expectancy in those days was generally much lower and child mortality much higher. Bryce, however, made clear to Indian Affairs that the mortality rate was far greater for natives than for the general population and that immediate action must be taken to address the problem. In 1914, as The Globe points out, “the most influential senior Indian Affairs official of the period,” Duncan Campbell Scott, allowed that “it is quite within the mark to say that fifty per cent of the children who passed through these schools did not live to benefit from the education which they had received therein.” Yet no effective action was taken until after the Second World War, by which time medical measures had much improved.

Scott's assessment cannot be generalized to the entire history of the schools, or confined to the schools for that matter. It captured the pitiful prospects of the native population as such. The schools, however, found themselves at the heart of what Hamilton aptly describes as a perfect storm: “a very, very poorly developed public health infrastructure”; an epidemiologically vulnerable population; children drawn from disparate communities, bringing sickness with them, then being crammed into buildings with poor heating and ventilation while offered an inadequate diet. Of course, says Hamilton, under such conditions diseases “are going to explode like wildfire.” 

The question that must be pressed is why this storm, which waxed and waned, was allowed to last for the better part of a century, at the expense of so many young lives. And why neither the state nor the church mustered the courage to turn and face it, or to extract themselves from it. 

Let us be clear: For the physical or mental abuse of those in their care, all who have power to prevent it are responsible, together with (if differently from) those perpetrating it. For policies that seduce or compel communities to send their children to schools where disease rages or where their culture is wrongfully suppressed, all who produce or perpetuate them are responsible. No party is responsible for everything, nor can blame be distributed equally. To distribute it justly is something of which only God is ultimately capable, but man has an obligation to try. It is part of learning to live justly.

Those who pretend that we have a new instrument for doing so are far too optimistic, however, or at least much too hasty. What we are presently learning from the ground scans is new only in certain modest particulars. Specific gravesites have been mapped or will be mapped. But we do not yet know, and may never know, whose remains they contain or which in life were well-treated and which mistreated. What we do know is that we are now in a better position, not to blame the living, but to honor the dead. And so we must, bearing in mind that, while most were victims of disease, not all were victims in the moral sense. Some were in the right place at the wrong time, and some, whether students or staff, were there quite voluntarily.  

We are hampered in this salutary work of honoring the dead by the smoke of burning churches, which tells us that the question of responsibility for that protracted “perfect storm” has not been answered as it ought to be answered. No such answer can retreat from official confessions of grave culpability, whether on the part of government or on the part of the religious organizations that ran the schools. The prime minister's despicable posturing notwithstanding, however, the former must bear the brunt of any further censure. For it was the state that determined the policy—forced assimilation by remote education—and held the purse strings that controlled its implementation. A fatally flawed scheme, conducted with a deadly combination of ambition and parsimony, was made worse by dereliction of duty by parties on both sides. Even the native side cannot avoid scrutiny. But the scheme itself had devastating effects for which national repentance was and is requisite.

Repentance for what? For just that, our collective and our particular failures. Not for Western civilization as such, though it has become the target of the cynical and the self-loathing. Certainly not for Christianity or the Catholic Church as such, which from the days of Canada's patron saints—Jean de Brébeuf and his colleagues, who shed martyrial blood on behalf of abandoned natives in the face of a real genocide—has done so much to temper our excesses and heal our diseases of body and soul, as it must now do again, despite its own shame and disgrace. Not for genocide either, for there was here no genocide, though there was no shortage of negligence, cruelty, disaster, and untimely death. 

In conclusion, something more must be said about this charge of genocide. Article II of the Genocide Convention defines genocide by reference to five kinds of acts “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.” These are:

  1. Killing members of the group;
  2. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
  3. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
  4. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
  5. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

In the present context, the fifth is the one most fixed upon by those who employ this term. It must be remembered, however, that all five are qualified by the intent clause, for which evidence is wanting. 

The aforementioned Globe article highlights the judgment of John Milloy, “the only outsider to have accessed the locked vault of Indian Affairs records” and author of a book that harks back to Bryce's. In that book, A National Crime: The Canadian Government and the Residential School System, Milloy rightly eschews the language of genocide, for no one was actually trying to make children ill or to erase the indigenous peoples. The unconscionable assault on their families and culture by the state, and the complicity of the churches (will we ever learn?) with the state, led to tragedy. But the school deaths “were primarily due to the policy of paying churches on a per-capita basis” that incentivized over-crowding and the dangerous admission or retention of sick students. It was inexcusable, but it was not genocide.

Moreover, the bare fact of compulsory remote education does not amount to what is specified in the fifth subsection, though it tends in that direction. I am strongly opposed to such education. Indeed, I am against most laws—today, ironically, such laws are again proliferating—that permit agents of the state to violate the sanctity of the family, doing things to the minds or bodies of children that their parents believe harmful. But I do not think Canada guilty of genocide, or the churches complicit in genocide. The failures of both, past and present, are sufficiently serious without resorting to that term.

Those who speak loosely of genocide do not discourage but encourage the kind of act that in the course of time leads to genocide; acts that do nothing for national repentance and do not honor, but rather disgrace, the dead. Honoring the dead should begin with prayer, for those still able to find a house of prayer. From there it should move to self-examination, contrition, and penance or reparation, so that there may be reconciliation between man and man and, by divine mercy, God and man.

Douglas Farrow is professor of Theology and Ethics at McGill University and sometime holder of the Kennedy Smith chair in Catholic Studies.

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