The Catholic Church has had decades to atone for the central role it played in the creation and administration of residential schools in Canada. And for decades, it declined to do much of anything on that front. But now, in the wake of the discovery of unmarked graves of 215 Indigenous children in Kamloops near the site of a former residential school, the church may not be able to hide from its past any longer. Nor will it be able to hide that past from everyone else.
There have been apologies and expressions of regret offered by local Catholic orders and dioceses in the past for the role they played in the mistreatment and abuse of Indigenous children, although the Pope has been steadfast in his refusal to offer a public apology. But words alone were never going to be enough, especially when they were being uttered by representatives of a church that was simultaneously stonewalling officials on the release of key documents and records about the residential school system they helped build.
“It's just so frustrating, it's so frustrating to the communities, so frustrating to the families and it's something the Truth and Reconciliation Commission fought for every single year of its existence,” Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond said in an interview with the Canadian Press.
Those records could have helped reveal the location of the unmarked graves in Kamloops, and they would almost certainly point families and officials to other similar sites across the country. And while Vancouver Archbishop J. Michael Miller said his diocese would be “fully transparent with our archives and records regarding all residential schools,” that’s sort of like offering to confess to a crime of which you’ve already been convicted. At this point, it’s just about reducing the severity of the sentence.
Prime Minister (and Catholic) Justin Trudeau expressed frustration with the Vatican’s ongoing recalcitrance when it comes to reconciliation. “We expect the church to step up and take responsibility for its role in this, and be there to help in the grieving and the healing, including with records,” he said. “It’s something a number of other churches, the United Church and others, have done. It’s something we are all still waiting for the Catholic Church to do.”
Indigenous Canadians and their families have waited on the Catholic Church long enough. Now it’s time for some action — and long-overdue restitution. That should begin with exploring the possibility of stripping Canada’s Catholic churches and parishes of their charitable status and taxing the enormous sums of wealth they’ve been allowed to accumulate over the years. It could include depriving Catholic schools of the public funding they receive in places like Ontario and Alberta and collapsing them into the broader public system instead.
And it must involve a direct financial payment to the descendants of the Indigenous people who were victimized by Catholic priests, nuns and other church officials — and whose relatives are effectively being re-victimized by last week’s news. As part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement struck in 2007, Catholic entities were obligated to put $25 million towards healing and reconciliation programs for survivors. But as the Globe and Mail’s Tavia Grant reported last week, “they wound up raising just $3.7 million.”
It’s not just godless heathens like me who are suggesting the Catholic Church should face financial consequences here. In a recent column, Michael Coren, a writer and Anglican priest who spent decades in the Catholic faith, broached the idea of removing the church’s charitable status. “The church is mired in sexual and physical abuse cases the world over, including Canada, and some areas are facing bankruptcy because of it,” he wrote. “But so be it, and there is a price to pay for such repugnant behaviour, and for its obfuscation and denial. The church is wealthy, and even if it weren’t this issue is about morality and humanity, not money and property.”
But from the church’s perspective, it seems, the issue here very much is about money and property. It understands revealing the full scope and scale of its role in the residential school system could expose it to financial risk, and it has seemed to do everything in its considerable power to prevent that from happening. That’s why it has withheld key information and records about its historical activities. And that’s why it needs to be forced to pay up for them.
That payment could be directed towards a broader effort to eliminate the costs — including housing and living expenses — of a post-secondary education for any Indigenous person in this country. There is no way to fully account for the damage that was done by residential schools, or the lasting impact they’ve had on so many families. But by opening the doors to Canada’s post-secondary institutions as widely as possible for Indigenous students, we can make some long overdue amends.