Papal apology closes door on residential school denialists
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Denialists should pay close attention to the carefully chosen words of Pope Francis this week, as he apologized for the Catholic Church’s involvement in Canada’s residential school system. They may learn something.
One of the claims we often hear from denialists is residential schools, while not perfect, were an earnest attempt by government and churches to provide Indigenous children with an education to prepare them for the modern world.
They acknowledge abuses took place and admit the schools could have been run better. However, they claim government had few options at the time and insist it was the best society could do.
There are a number of falsehoods in those claims.
For one, residential schools were not designed to provide Indigenous children with an education. If they were, the schools would have been properly funded and staffed with experienced teachers (like public schools for non-Indigenous children). They were not.
They were, for the most part, run more like prisons — in largely dilapidated buildings where Indigenous children were malnourished, neglected, and often physically and sexually abused.
If the goal was to educate, the schools would not have operated under “half-day” programs, where Indigenous children were used as free labour for half their “school” days.
It didn’t have to be that way, Pope Francis said this week.
“When the European colonists first arrived here, there was a great opportunity to bring about a fruitful encounter between cultures, traditions and forms of spirituality,” he said. “Yet, for the most part, that did not happen.”
It didn’t happen because white, Christian, European settlers had no interest in a fruitful encounter with Indigenous peoples (at least not post-Confederation).
Euro-Canadians believed their culture, language and race was superior. Government leaders told Indigenous people directly during treaty talks they needed to live more like white people. The explicit objective of government was to eradicate Indigenous culture and language.
Pope Francis called it “evil.” He begged forgiveness for the Catholic Church’s role in the systematic marginalization and denigration of Indigenous people, and for the “physical, verbal, psychological and spiritual abuse” they were subjected to.
There were plenty of options for European settlers to live in harmony with Indigenous people in a climate of mutual respect (as some did pre-Confederation). It could have been a fruitful encounter, where neither side claimed racial or moral superiority over the other.
Pope Francis cleared up another falsehood denialists are fond of spreading: because some Indigenous children, in rare cases, had positive experiences at residential schools, and because some Indigenous families voluntarily enrolled their kids in them, the institutions couldn’t have been that bad.
The Pope reminded Canadians even if the schools had some redeeming qualities, they were overshadowed by the overarching goal of cultural genocide.
“Although Christian charity was not absent, and there were many outstanding instances of devotion and care for children, the overall effects of the policies linked to the residential schools were catastrophic,” he said. “What our Christian faith tells us is that this was a disastrous error, incompatible with the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
The Pope’s descriptions of what occurred at residential schools are not new; they have been widely researched and documented over the past few decades, including the findings of the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and books such as J.R. Miller’s Shingwauk’s Vision: a History of Native Residential Schools (1996).
The Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in the early 1990s documented the evils of residential schools and other assimilative policies. Its 1996 report was largely ignored by government.
Still, the Pope’s apology, in front of Indigenous people on their territory, acknowledging many Christians from the Catholic Church participated in the genocidal policy, was unique.
It was an official admission of guilt and a sincere expression of remorse. It was intended to help residential school survivors heal, but also to confirm history.
Hopefully, residential school denialists are paying attention.
Tom has been covering Manitoba politics since the early 1990s and joined the Winnipeg Free Press news team in 2019.