Canada’s Trudeau Fans the Flame of Blame

EDITORIAL: In the face of recent attacks on Catholic churches it’s urgent to communicate a central pair of truths about the residential schools of Canada.

A former Polish Roman Catholic church in rural Saskatchewan was destroyed by fire Thursday.
A former Polish Roman Catholic church in rural Saskatchewan was destroyed by fire Thursday. (photo: Sreenshot / Lynn Swystun)

The recent findings of unmarked graves located beside government-owned residential schools for Indigenous children that once operated in Canada has erupted into an international controversy, unjustly centered on the Catholic Church’s involvement with these schools.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau swiftly joined with Native leaders in demanding that Pope Francis apologize for the Church’s role in operating the majority of these residential schools during the 19th and 20th centuries. 

This misguided rhetoric of blame has now escalated into the burning down and vandalization of a number of Catholic churches across Canada.

In the face of these deplorable attacks on Catholic churches (and, to a lesser degree, against churches belonging to other Christian denominations), it’s urgent to communicate a central pair of truths. 

First, the creation of Canada’s residential-school system was a historical injustice, based upon prevailing assumptions about Indigenous peoples that tragically failed to recognize their personal and collective dignity and respect their existing cultural practices. 

And second, the primary responsibility for this assimilationist system of schooling rests overwhelmingly with the Canadian government, not with the Catholic Church or the other Christian denominations who were contracted by the government to operate individual schools. 

The government set up the system, funded the schools (or, more accurately, underfunded them), and mandated that Indigenous students attend them. As a result of this political initiative, Indigenous children were uprooted from their families and communities in order to be schooled by the dominant Eurocentric culture. They were housed in substandard facilities that were breeding grounds for the infectious diseases that caused the deaths of the vast majority of former students whose bodies now lie buried in nearby graves. 

Certainly, there is ample blame to be assigned to all parties who participated in the schools. At the time they were created, Canada’s dominant European culture assumed Indigenous peoples to be backward and in need of assimilation in order to share in the material benefits of the rapidly industrializing young nation. 

Today, this colonialist assumption is understood to be profoundly flawed and often deeply racist. It was regrettably a nearly universal sentiment among Canada’s political leadership of the day.

While some Canadian Catholic leaders may have subscribed in varying degrees to this political view, it was never the position of the Church that assimilationist policies ought to be imposed. And Canadian religious denominations were recruited by the government to operate residential schools often because they were more concerned about the welfare of aboriginal communities than the general population — not less so. It was this Christian concern that made them willing to operate the schools despite inadequate funding, poor facilities, and the hardships that the schools’ staff often faced themselves, including sharing in the threat of sickness and death that resulted from the prevailing unhealthy conditions. 

Moreover, Canada’s current government bears a particular responsibility for fanning the flames of the controversy at this moment, by falsely implying Church officials were responsible for the burial practices at the schools, even though these practices were largely dictated by government policies. 

In fact, the existence of the abandoned gravesites was not even a secret, although it was not widely publicized. According to research conducted several years ago by an anthropologist commissioned to investigate the burial issue, of the 150,000 students who attended the schools over the 140-year period they were in operation, approximately 4,000 died, primarily because of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis that were often widespread in the schools. The numbers of deaths declined drastically after 1950, however, as a result of the development of effective modern treatments for these diseases.

And it wasn’t only students who died at the schools. 

For example, during the global Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-20, all of the staff and every student except for two contracted the deadly virus at one Church-operated school in northern British Columbia. Seventy-eight of the students and staff died, and while the local Catholic pastor tried initially to conduct individual burial services, the flood of fatalities forced many of the victims to be placed into a common grave. 

Such nuances have been completely lost in the current furor. Also overlooked is the critical detail that, until last month, the Trudeau government ignored the specific 2015 recommendation of Canada’s residential-school investigative arm, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to facilitate a proper accounting of the bodies buried in the untended and sometimes forgotten graveyards. This failure has contributed directly to the national outpouring of misguided venom now being directed at the houses of worship involved with the schools’ operation. 

It’s a shirking of responsibility that Trudeau doesn’t want to discuss, preferring instead to point a finger of blame “as a Catholic” at Pope Francis for declining to personally apologize — even though the Holy Father, unlike Trudeau, bears no personal responsibility for actions that have fueled the destructive anger now convulsing Canada. 

For his part, the Holy Father, at his June 6 Angelus, expressed his closeness to the Canadian people “who have been traumatized by this shocking news.” He also asked those assembled in St. Peter’s Square to join in silent prayer “for the souls of all of the dead children in the residential schools of Canada; and let us pray for the families and the Native communities of Canada shattered by pain.”

Francis has also agreed to meet with groups from First Nations, Metis and Inuit Dec. 20 during a visit by members of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.

In retrospect, the religious engagement with the Canadian government’s residential-school system can be viewed as a grave error in judgment — and Canadian Catholic dioceses and religious orders that were directly involved in the operation of schools continue to apologize for the harm caused by their engagement. 

However, it is simply not the case that Canada’s Catholics and other Christians lagged behind the nation’s political leadership in terms of renouncing assimilationist policies. 

As recently as 1969, the Canadian government formally advocated a new policy abolishing separate status for its Indigenous residents for the express purpose of integrating them more fully into Canadian society. This proposal was abandoned only after fierce resistance from the Native peoples themselves. The Canadian prime minister who advanced this proposed new policy was actually Justin Trudeau’s father, Pierre Trudeau, a man still widely regarded in Canada for enlightened, progressive thinking. 

So if Justin Trudeau truly believes in the concept of “inherited” institutional guilt, as he appears to do with respect to Pope Francis, in fairness it ought to be noted that his own inheritance is vastly more tangible than that of the Holy Father.

The current Canadian government’s bid to shift blame to the Catholic Church completely contradicts its own stated goal of seeking truth and reconciliation in this situation. It has served to misrepresent the Church as the principal villain, when the primary responsibility lies with political leadership. And how can anyone claim that reconciliation is being encouraged when Catholic churches are being torched across Canada partly because of the inflammatory rhetoric of Justin Trudeau and other members of his government? 

While Prime Minister Trudeau has now condemned the burning of churches, he also stated that such actions are “understandable.” He needs to take far more responsibility for stemming the attacks. 

Along with emphasizing the primary role government played in the formation and operation of these residential schools, the Canadian prime minister should apologize for the way his posturing has quite literally fanned the flames of anti-religious bigotry in the wake of the recent gravesite disclosures. Doing so would demonstrate a long-overdue commitment toward authentic reconciliation.