“Yes, But…”

The former St. Anne's Indian Residential School before it was burned down in Fort Albany, ON, which operated from 1902-1976

The Indian Residential School system existed in Canada and caused enormous damage to children, families and communities. That’s not a belief, it’s a fact. As such, it is part of our national fabric and needs to be included in our historical, political and religious narratives, no matter what emerging evidence may reveal.

Most of us know this now, but some Catholics are angry and hurt at what they perceive to be unbalanced information. Let’s be honest, it’s painful to see the elements of our Church attacked. We want more good in the story. We say, “Yes but, what about —?” We want the nuances of kind staff and positive outcomes to be known, alongside the pain.

Were there instances of goodness in Residential Schools? Sure. Our President has spoken with a few survivors who told him of how they benefitted. An Inuit girl’s life was saved by being taken in and given food and warmth. An Ahousaht woman was helped by a Sister to advance academically and become a counsellor for her people.

Fort Albany Cemetery across from where St. Anne’s Indian Residential School stood

However, these individual anecdotes don’t come within a mile of balancing things out. They pale in comparison to the systemic level of arrogance, cruelty and the destruction of social cohesion perpetrated by one culture against another, in defiance of Church teaching. Remember that in 1537, Pope Paul III issued a papal bull, Sublimus Deus, declaring that Indians and all other people who may later be discovered by Christians, are by no means to be deprived of their liberty and the possession of their property. Popes Urban VIII and Benedict XIV both condemned the enslavement and abuse of Indigenous peoples.

Vinita Srivastava, in Truth Before Reconciliation: 8 Ways to Identify and Confront Residential School Denialism (The Conversation, August 5, 2021) has stated:

Anything at all that made life bearable under a dominant violent context of staff-inflicted cruelties, deprivations and separations from friends, family and home is cited by denialists as a “good” of residential schooling to absolve churches of culpability. Denialists insist on focusing on a minority of individualized positive recollections from the schools as part of a strategy to discredit those who draw attention to the overall, systemic genocidal effects of the IRS system. Even the Anglican Church of Canada which ran approximately 30 per cent of residential schools across the country, has clarified that “there was nothing good” about a school system that sought to “kill the Indian in the child.”

So where does that leave those who want a more balanced narrative? I’m reminded of some advice to those in the “yes, but” camp about reframing statements to ensure that the emphasis remains on the larger issue at hand. This pertains to all kinds of situations and I’ve found it to be a useful exercise in my own “yes, but” thinking. Instead of saying, “Yes bad things happened, but we need to ensure that the stories of kindness also come out,” reframe it to say, “Yes, not everyone was abusive, but the immense negative impact on Indigenous communities needs to be revealed.”

It’s also important to educate oneself on the full history and impact of Residential Schools and the insidious and dangerous nature of what has come to be called denialism.

Srivastava’s article is a good place to start. Denialism, taken to the extreme, has resulted in hate-filled “prolific violence” against communities where unmarked graves have been found. According to Special Interlocutor Kimberley Murray, “[This] takes place via e-mail, telephone, social media, op-eds and, at times, through in-person confrontations.” The extent of this is such that Murray has been speaking to the federal Justice Minister about legislation to counteract it.

And what about the issue of “mass graves”? Facts, not conjecture or hyperbole are important here too for the historical record. In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission called for the ongoing identification, documentation, maintenance, commemoration, and protection of residential school cemeteries or other sites at which residential school children were buried. Thus began the ongoing search for children’s graves, some of which were documented in school records, some of which were not. The latter became the “missing graves” or “missing children”.

Unmarked graves within a cemetery and mass graves both raise questions and concerns, but can be vastly different entities. To date, there has been little evidence of the latter and the areas that have been excavated revealed no significant new findings – some were not even graves. One must note though, that 19 child-sized skeletonized remains wrapped in cloth were accidentally uncovered on school grounds at the Saddle Creek Cree Nation in 2004 and are thought to be part of a communal burial that resulted from a typhoid epidemic. Tuberculosis is likely responsible for many of the deaths at other sites. These are diseases that spread especially well in congregate, carceral settings.

Ground-penetrating radar and cadaver dogs are amazing, but can only point to the presence of an anomaly below ground, not to what it is or how it got there. Additionally, the term “mass grave” is problematic, having no accepted legal or scientific definition. A search of the relevant literature reveals similar, but differing, criteria used by various experts, with as few as 2 and up to 6+ bodies used as starting points. Some use the term only when the lawfulness of the site is in question and the term “communal burial” when it is not.

Writing in the National Post (Sept. 6/23), Tristan Hopper stated:

The preliminary claims of First Nations performing the surveys did not state that there were “mass graves”, that they were deliberately concealed or that they were the result of homicide. At least in the beginning, the claims of “mass graves” or mass murder would stem mostly from foreign news outlets….Three similar announcements [of graves] followed throughout the summer, each one spurring a new wave of sensationalized headlines. But in all these cases, First Nations were careful to note that the graves were either within existing cemeteries, were previously known about or may not even be children’s graves with any link to a residential school.

Regardless of the caution exercised by many Indigenous leaders and the lack of evidence, the term “mass grave” has crept into use, spawning calls for action, inaccurate media reports, destruction of property and the attention of the International Criminal Court.

Retired Bishop Fred Henry of Alberta is very angry about the whole situation and has been calling on the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) to “publicly and formally” challenge the Interim Report by Special Interlocutor Kimberley Murray on the subject of unmarked graves and missing children. The BC Catholic reported the following on August 17, 2023:

“For some reason ‘they have eyes to see but refuse to see, ears to hear but refuse to listen”, [Henry] writes. “Their silence is doing irreparable harm to the Church that I love.”

“Archbishops Smith and Bolen, however, counter that they do indeed have their listening ears open — they’re focused now on hearing the Indigenous side that has historically and tragically been ignored… “I would just say let the (special) interlocutor do her job,” Archbishop Smith said. “It is an interim report. What we’re focused on… with the CCCB is working with her.”

We made a pledge… as bishops to make records available to look into the truth of things, and we are happy and very ready to help the Indigenous peoples tell their story… Archbishop Bolen stressed that impatience or urgency can’t be allowed to interfere with the complexity of Church-Indigenous history…”Good that historians are asking questions, and good that we carry out that work as a society, which is part of the work of truth-telling.”

Archbishop Donald Bolen of Regina

The CCCB is right to wait, listen and cooperate. Undoubtedly, they will issue an organizational response once Murray’s final report is out. Glaring factual errors or unfounded conclusions, if any, can be challenged at that time, but the Church’s response must be focused on healing.

To take a strong “yes, but” position or to nitpick makes an organization look defensive and weak.

I’ve seen it happen in other circumstances to large organizations and, believe me, it is not a good look and does nothing to re-build trust.

Should the potential graves be examined further? Exhumation is a traumatic event that is sure to heap more pain on those already suffering. First Nations communities are divided on the matter, with some preferring to let their dead rest in peace, while others want answers. Once again quoting the above National Post article:

“We all understand what it means to move the kids, to disturb them. There’s no one who doesn’t understand that”, T’kemlups representative Ted Gottfriedson said in May 2022 of the community’s decision to ultimately move forward with excavation. “There’s no manual for us to follow, so we’re taking things slow.”

Perhaps that’s the best way forward – to proceed slowly, carefully and by taking the needs and wishes of the local community into account. Certainly, any excavations should be done by properly qualified and respectful forensic anthropologists. Their scientific findings should then become part of the historical record – whatever truth they reveal.

Regardless of the nature of these graves or the causes of death, it must be remembered that many children died over the years in Residential Schools, far from the love and comfort of home and family. That’s the real tragedy. Every child does matter.