After the Angelus on Sunday July 17, 2022, in front of 12,000 faithful gathered in St. Peter's Square, the sovereign pontiff revealed the meaning of his apostolic journey to Canada: “I will come among you especially, in the name of Jesus, to meet and embrace the indigenous peoples.”
The first part described the “penitential” aspect of this papal trip. It then presented an overview of the evangelization of Canada to situate the second part.
“Indigenous Residential Schools”
At the beginning of the 19th century, the British administration took control of the vast territories of western Canada, establishing Indian reserves and opening schools, called “native boarding schools” or “residential schools,” for Indian children in order to facilitate the assimilation of new generations into Western society. For this, the British administration relied on major Protestant philanthropic movements.
Methodist Egerton Ryerson theorizes that the principle of establishments capable of transforming indigenous people into farmers “fortified by Christian principles, sentiments, and habits.” In 1847, he wrote a report on the subject for the British Indian Department, which saw in it a method of increasing its influence not only on the Indians but also on the many French-speaking populations.
Their operation was entrusted to religious communities but remained largely financed by the State. 67% of establishments would be entrusted to Catholic organizations. In 1894, faced with the resistance of some parents, the government made compulsory the participation of children aged 7 to 16 years.
In 1945, the government stopped paying some of the family allowances to families who did not send their children to the residential schools. In 1969, the government stopped collaborating with the clergy, which led to the closure of most establishments, although some, still funded by the government, remained open until the end of the 1990s.
Today, Indian associations reproach the “cultural genocide” perpetrated by residential schools. The ill-treatment that some residents may have suffered is also being denounced. Government surveys have shown that in some establishments, tuberculosis led to the death of many residents.
And the disappearances of children, linked to deaths due to illness or runaways, are a particularly sensitive point of the debate. The government prohibited the return of the bodies to the families, so many students would have been buried by the establishments in graves that are currently unnamed, without warning the parents.
There are also cases of forced adoption of children by non-Indian families. The associations denounce the disappearance without official explanation of children accommodated by these establishments. Finally, the associations highlight the “historical or intergenerational trauma” of some residents and their descendants manifested by an increase in suicides, drug addiction, depression, and abuse in Indian communities.
In conclusion, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada recognized the responsibility of the Catholic Church after the investigation carried out between 2008 and 2015. That is to say the participation of the Catholic Church in the “cultural genocide.”
The Catholic Church officially apologized to the indigenous peoples of Canada in 2021, in recognition of the errors committed under its management of the residential schools, after the apologies of the Anglican (1993) and Unitarian (1986) representatives, and those of the Oblate conference of Canada which asked for forgiveness in 1991, and those of the Canadian Jesuits (1993).
The Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement that the Catholic Church signed in 2006 provided for the payment of $25 million in compensation. After delays and much criticism, the Canadian bishops announced in January 2022 that they had paid out approximately $28.5 million. The Church had already invested 25 million dollars in the construction of specialized centers in 2011.
What Is It in Truth?
What about these missing children? Previous studies on the subject leave one wondering, to say the least, about the extent of the disinformation.
Several reports have reported on the situation of residential schools. In particular two reports by Dr. Peter Bryce, commissioned by the Department of Indian Affairs, published in 1907 and 1922, describe the poor sanitary conditions in Indian residential schools and the resulting high death rate.
The doctor recommended the establishment of hospitals on or near the reservations, in order to combat the alarming rate of death from tuberculosis. In 1922, Dr. Bryce argued that the Department of Indian Affairs had neglected the health needs of Indigenous people and denounced the “criminal neglect of treaty promises,” which had not been kept.
More recently, an article from July 6, 2021, by Jacques Rouillard, professor emeritus of the history department of the University of Montreal, recalled that “in the Report, ‘the schools are considered as engines of cultural and spiritual change”: the “savages” would become “Christian white men.”
“To do this, the government had decided on a radical, inhuman method: to tear young people of school age from their families against their will. The blame for this tragedy rests entirely with the successive Canadian governments that funded residential schools, not with the religious communities that met the schooling targets set by the Department of Indian Affairs.”
And on the subject of the graves of children who died in large numbers from tuberculosis, “according to historians Jim Miller and Brian Gettler, who have focused their research on the First Nations, ‘wooden crosses were placed where the children were buried in cemeteries according to Catholic rites. They [the crosses] obviously disintegrated quickly.’”
Thus, concludes Professor Jacques Rouillard, “there is no indication that the children buried in these long-forgotten cemeteries died of abuse or neglect.… If there is any fault, it lies with the federal Department of Indian Affairs which did not provide adequate funding for residential schools, children, and cemeteries.”
“According to the media, this Canadian tragedy is the result of the failure of the Catholic Church and other religious organizations, which constitutes outright anti-Catholic bigotry. This is another attempt to discredit religious faith and drive religion out of the public square. The residential schools are the tool used for this purpose.”