According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, residential schools in Canada were established by the federal government to support schooling as a way to make First Nations economically self-sufficient. “Their underlying objective was to decrease Indigenous dependence on public funds. The government therefore collaborated with Christian missionaries to encourage religious conversion and Indigenous economic self-sufficiency.” By the 1930s, there were eighty institutions – the Roman Catholic Church operated three-fifths of the schools, the Anglican Church one-quarter and the United and Presbyterian Churches the remainder, with the Methodist Church operating some prior to the establishment of the United Church of Canada. From 1969 until 1978, control and maintenance of residential schools was turned back over in the hands of the federal government of Canada led by Pierre Trudeau of the Liberal Party.
The discovery of the unmarked graves in Kamloops was fodder for a media that was too tired to report on the COVID pandemic. All of a sudden, it was on a frenzy, calling the findings a “mass grave” and capitalizing on the grief of the Tk̓emlúps te Secwépemc First Nations by once again blaming and putting in the spotlight on the Catholic Church, while refraining from a reference to the government’s fundamental role in historic oppression of First Nations peoples. Calls for the Pope to come to Canada to apologize for the abuses in the schools were again made, reopening the call that was made in 2018, with no other than Prime Minister Justin Trudeau jumping in on the bandwagon, proclaiming the atrocities as unforgivable, and in the same breath claiming that he was Catholic. It took First Nations Chief Rosanne Casimir to tell reporters a few weeks after that the remains claimed to have been discovered at a former residential school near Kamloops, British Columbia were “not a mass grave” according to preliminary findings to calm media down, and now, the talk of the graves have died down as quickly as it appeared. In the press conference she asked that the media focus on the grief of the Indigenous peoples of Canada. As well, forensics experts say that a forensic human identification would be challenging in finding relevant DNA comparisons to identify the victims as direct descendants who are no longer alive. Megan Bassendale, the director of the Vancouver-based company Forensic Guardians International, said the process of DNA analysis of the remains that will be recovered can take time. As well, records will need to be compared to public health records of diseases and epidemics of that time, such as the tuberculosis epidemic from 1890 to 1910 and the Spanish flu, that may have caused some deaths as well.
The Archdiocese of Vancouver and Kamloops offered its apologies and assured the Indigenous peoples of Canada of its plans to help, especially the families of those who were interred in the schools, to recover and to heal from the effects of the residential schools on subsequent generations. While the Catholic Church moves towards reparations and healing, Trudeau’s Liberal government quickly points fingers and throws everyone under the bus, even though the whole system of residential schools was the brainchild of the Canadian government. Deacon Rennie Nahanee of St. Paul’s Squamish Nation Church in North Vancouver, says many Indigenous Christians are angry at the oppressive system, but he says that their love for their faith calls them to be forgiving. About 46% of the Indigenous peoples of Canada continue to practice their Christian faith and many of them have vocations as clergy in their own denominations. Nahanee said last week’s call by Trudeau for the Pope to formally apologize is passing on the blame that the government should make reparations for because it was the Canadian government who established the program in the first place.
Vancouver Sun writer Douglas Todd said that “Ignorance of Canada’s residential school system is likely to lead people to simplistic judgments about good and evil.” I couldn’t agree more. Casimir, who opposes any plans to destroy buildings and statues attributed to the residential schools, said that she supports keeping the residential school buildings standing as a way to learn from the ugly truths contained in Canadian history as a whole. While the abuses that Indigenous children experienced in residential schools, with some resulting in death, are truly atrocious and heart-wrenching, we look to our First Nations brothers and sisters like Casimir and Nahanee who, while they grieve and try to find meaning and answers to their questions, continue to look to the truth and to love the faith that their ancestors handed down to them, not as a matter of consequence, but one that is born out of love of neighbour and forgiveness.