While thinking about the terrible legacy of the residential schools, and the grave injustices against Indigenous Canadians over the decades, my mind went back to the 1960s and the U.S. civil rights movement.
Specifically, I thought about the time in June 1963 when U.S. President John F. Kennedy made a televised speech in which he appealed to Americans to accept civil rights as a moral issue.
Writing about the speech, Mark K. Updegrove, an ABC News’ presidential historian, noted Kennedy had been under considerable pressure to stop seeing civil rights only as a legal or legislative issue and see it also, as Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, as a moral cause that needed moral passion.
Some of the most serious pressure came from his brother, attorney general Bobby Kennedy. Earlier that year the younger Kennedy had met a group of angry African-American activists in New York City.
At that meeting, the group didn’t hold back. This included a young protester who told the attorney general about the beatings he had received for demanding civil rights.
He "put it like it was," recalled actress and singer Lena Horne, sharing "the plain, basic suffering of being a Negro." He became so worked up he blurted out he wanted to vomit just being in the same room with Bobby Kennedy.
The verbal assault hit Kennedy hard, Updegrove wrote, since he had considered himself an ally of African-Americans and supportive of their cause.
After the meeting he knew he needed to do more. He urged the president to embrace civil rights as a moral issue. The president agreed, even though many of his advisers cautioned against it.
In the speech, the president said civil rights was not a regional, partisan, legal or legislative issue alone. "We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution," he stated.
The speech was warmly received by African-Americans and other people of colour who faced systemic racism and segregation as a daily reality of life in that country.
A few days after the speech, the president invited representatives from various faith groups to a meeting at the White House to talk about civil rights. Among the invited faith leaders was Rabbi Abraham Heschel, one of the leading American Jewish theologians and philosophers of the 20th century.
In accepting the invitation, Heschel referenced the televised speech, asking the JFK to go further. He suggested Kennedy should "demand religious leaders’ personal involvement, not just a solemn declaration."
"We forfeit the right to worship God as long as we continue to humiliate Negroes," Heschel said. "Church and synagogue have failed, they must repent. Ask religious leaders to call for national repentance and personal sacrifice. Let religious leaders donate one month’s salary toward a fund for Negro housing and education. I propose that you, Mr. President, declare a state of moral emergency... the hour calls for moral grandeur and spiritual audacity."
Unfortunately, the president did not declare a state of moral emergency or make any other requests of clergy.
Despite that, Heschel’s comments stick with me. Today our issue is Canada’s troubled history with Indigenous people, and the terrible legacy of residential schools.
As with the issue of civil rights back then, the situation today isn’t just political or legal, although those are important. Nor is it just about money, although that’s a powerful symbol of wanting to make things right.
And it certainly isn’t jurisdictional. I think it’s time for church leaders to stop debating which dioceses or orders or denominations were most responsible for which schools or who signed which agreement or which group apologized and when. Nobody cares about that anymore, and it just sounds like trying to dodge the issue.
Instead, I think it might be time to declare a moral and spiritual emergency over residential schools and the terrible history of Canada’s relationship with Indigenous people. Along with that would come a call to offer repentance, seek forgiveness, and make a sincere commitment to pursue reconciliation and make things right.
Maybe such a call could include plans for a national summit of religious leaders — not just Roman Catholics, who are getting the bulk of the critical media attention today — but all Christian denominations and other faith groups. For many Canadians, I don’t think it matters who was in charge of residential schools; religion, in general, has received a black eye over what was done to children in the name of God.
Of course, this isn’t the 1960s. Religion doesn’t hold the same place in society today. Prime ministers no longer naturally turn to religious leaders when addressing issues of national consequence.
But I think we all can acknowledge something very wrong was done to Indigenous people through the schools and other ways. Maybe it’s time for someone, or some group, to make this a moral and spiritual issue for the whole nation. Who will make that call?
John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.