by André Schutten
Members of Parliament voted overwhelmingly (269 to 10) in favour of a motion calling on Canada’s Roman Catholic bishops to request the pope visit Canada to apologize for the Church’s role in the residential schools.
The residential school system was deeply flawed and perpetrated much evil against vulnerable children. It separated indigenous children from their parents without the families’ consent, violating the family unit with the force of law. The Roman Catholic Church and other denominations were willing cooperators with the government in running this school system.
Nevertheless, this call for the pope to apologize troubles me.
This is not to say that there isn’t a place for groups and civil governments to apologize for their participation or inaction in past wrongs. An example of this is in 2001 when some Christian groups got together and apologized to the Jewish survivors of the MS St. Louis, a ship full of Jewish people that Canada turned away in 1939. This resulted in 254 of them perishing in the Holocaust. Prime Minister Trudeau very recently brought up that same ship and apologized in question period for Canada’s actions, with an official apology pending. These types of apologies mean a lot to the Jewish community and can be applauded. There is value of owning up to and apologizing for wrong actions of the past. I’m glad Mr. Trudeau is doing so for the survivors of the Holocaust who were passengers on the St. Louis, and I’m glad the previous pope did so to survivors of Canada’s residential schools.
Nevertheless, this House of Commons pope motion still troubles me. It betrays a failure to understand the root problem of the residential schools and suggests our legislators have much yet to learn.
Three problems with the pope vote
Father Raymond De Souza spelled out several problems with this motion in a recent editorial. To summarize his three points:
- A previous pope has already apologized for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the residential schools and that apology was accepted by the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations at the time, Phil Fontaine, a former residential school student himself. Fontaine called that apology the historic “final piece” of the confession of sin by the various churches and told CBC News that the papal apology should “close the book” on church apologies.
- It is not the business of the Parliament of Canada to tell the Catholic bishops of Canada what they should or should not do in their relations with the pope.
- The timing of the motion is curious in light of the summer jobs attestation “kerfuffle”. To demand an apology from a Christian leader after deliberately discriminating against that same church by refusing to release publicly available funds to support even a small fraction of the good work they do every summer for vulnerable people, including many First Nations, seems ill-timed at best.
Two more problems with the pope vote
To De Souza’s three points, I’d add two more:
- The motion calls only the Roman Catholic Church to apologize (again). Yet a quarter of the residential schools were run by Anglicans. Why not call on the Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Anglican Church, to apologize (despite the Anglican Church of Canada having apologized once already in 1993)? Or why not call out Jordan Cantwell, Moderator of the United Church of Canada, which together with the Presbyterian Church ran another quarter of the schools? The United Church apologized twice, but its last apology was in 1998. Is it time for a third? Could it be that the Parliamentary motion skipped these denominations because they are famously socially progressive, whereas the Roman Catholic Church is much more socially conservative?
- The Roman Catholic Church (or the United Church or Anglican Church) could not have done anything with the residential schools without the force of the state behind it. While these Christian institutions provided the education, it was state actors who compelled or abducted Indigenous children from their families and kept them at residential schools. The motion demanding a papal apology ignores this. CBC’s coverage of the motion and the history behind it also ignores this important point.
This final point merits deeper exploration.
The residential school system wreaked havoc on Indigenous families and the effects are clearly still being felt and will be felt for a very long time. This raises a question I’ve long asked myself: why do the historic wrongs committed against certain people groups seem to have longer and deeper repercussions than others? I have a hypothesis that requires a PhD thesis to do it justice. Here’s the background, hypothesis, and the application:
Four historic atrocities
Consider four historic atrocities committed against four distinct people groups, in chronological order: the African slave trade, the residential schools, the Jewish Holocaust and the Cambodian genocide. All four are horrors of history that we need to learn from and never repeat. Of the four, only one group seems to have overcome the injustice in a resilient way, that being the Jewish people. The ignorant would presume that has something to do either with race or conspiracies.
Interfering with families in the past
Though I think it’s more complicated than any one factor, my hypothesis is that state interference with the natural family unit has devastating inter-generational effects. In the African slave trade, residential schools, and the Cambodian genocide, children were forcibly separated from their parents and raised by other slaves, by state bureaucrats or their proxies. The bond of family was destroyed or undermined in significant ways by the state (in the case of slavery, the state sanctioned the actions of slave owners). And this forcible separation of children from their mom and their dad leads to generational tragedy, where children don’t know their mom and dad, don’t have a role model for what it means to grow into a mom or dad, a husband or wife, don’t have the first social safety net (the family) and so they remain lost and broken.
Strangely, the Jewish Holocaust, though the most intensive and violent of these human rights tragedies, did not result in the same generational devastation. Why not? My hypothesis is that the Nazis attempted to exterminate the Jewish people as a whole but often did not separate mothers and fathers from children until they got to the murderous concentration camps and gas chambers. Most Jews hid together as families and, if hidden successfully, survived as families. Where families were caught and sent to extermination camps, the thousands of survivors – Holocaust orphans and widows or widowers – worked intensively to rebuild families immediately after the war ended. And while there was tragic and devastating post-trauma effects, nevertheless, some three or four generations after the Holocaust, Jewish families are socially and economically stable, certainly more so (generally speaking) than individuals and families in First Nations, African-American, and Cambodian families.
If my hypothesis has any merit, this has huge implications for the government. State law and policy needs to respect the pre-political social unit of the family and interfere with it only in extreme cases of criminal abuse or neglect.
Interfering with families today
Provincial and federal legislators in Canada: take note! You have been meddling in the sphere of family for too long. The social experimentation of modern families with bizarre new definitions of what constitutes a family must stop. The intentional interference in parental decisions on the moral and behavioural shaping of their children must stop. The refusal to encourage traditional family units must end. The willingness to intentionally deprive a child of knowing who their biological mom and dad are must stop. Interference with discipline decisions of parents must stop.
I am in no way suggesting that Ontario’s Bill 89 or the Senate Bill 206 are comparable in their effects to the slave trade or residential schools. What I am saying is that the radical pieces of legislation I just listed meddle in the family. And that meddling signals to me that Parliamentarians have not learned the fundamental lesson of what was wrong with residential schools. I hope they smarten up soon.