This week Pope Francis is scheduled to make a trip to Canada which is, in his own words, “a penitential pilgrimage, which I hope, with God’s grace, will contribute to the journey of healing and reconciliation already undertaken.” He is referring to the ongoing need of The Church to atone for its role in the residential schools for Native Americans in the 19th & 20th centuries. The Holy Father reflects, “unfortunately, in Canada, many Christians,including some members of religious institutes, have contributed to the policies of cultural assimilation that, in the past, have severely harmed native communities in various ways.”
The residential schools in Canada, established and funded by the Canadian government to educate Native Americans, also became tools, as Pope Francis says, of cultural assimilation of aiming to replace the culture of the Native American communities with an Anglo centered Canadian one. Certainly this situation calls for apology. Indeed, Pope Benedict XVI met with a delegation of Native American leaders at the Vatican in 2009 where he listened to their testimony and apologized on behalf of the members of theChurch who participated in the wrongs of the schools. At the same time, we need to remember the context in which these schools operated. I am indebted to Dr. Douglas Farrow’s article “The History of Canada’s Residential Schools” in Catholic World Report for much of thefollowing information.
The residential schools were sponsored by the Canadian government and run by various organizations, some of which included Catholic religious orders. While all the schools Catholic ones included received the mission to educate the students in the Anglo Canadian culture, this was dictated to them by the government. In fact, Catholic schools that respected native culture had been operating in Canada for many years before this policy was enacted.
Much has been said about the unmarked graves of children who died at these schools. This is a tragedy yet the truth about the tragedy is that most of these children died from sickness, especially tuberculosis. When they were buried their graves were marked by simple wooden crosses. Over time these rotted and the cemeteries were overgrown. While clearly an unacceptable situation, it isn’t as though no effort was made to mark the grave at the time of burial. The Canadian government did not invest much money towards the running of these schools, meaning not only the conditions for the living but also the graves of the dead were generally very simple. Government policy was to expend only the minimum cost necessary for burial, and no responsibility was taken for the upkeep of the cemeteries. Nobody will dispute that this is a tragic situation, yet at the same time, while it is important for the Catholic Church to take responsibility for its part in this situation, it is neither fair nor correct to make the Church the scapegoat for apolicy enacted and overseen by the Canadian Government. Let’s see what is said by both the Pope and the Prime Minister this week.