Here’s why the Pope’s visit to Canada concerns us all

Here’s why the Pope’s visit to Canada concerns us all

Who is Pope Francis’ visit to Canada for, July 24-29? Marie-Pierre Bousquet, Full Professor, Director of the Native Studies Program at the Université de Montréal.


ANALYSIS – In general, these papal visits primarily concern Catholics and can therefore be of little interest to the population in general. With stops in Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, Quebec, as well as Edmonton, Maskwacis and Iqaluit, this tour seems, in this case, to be aimed primarily at Indigenous people: its purpose is to apologize on behalf of the Catholic Church with respect to the so-called “Indian boarding schools”.

Indeed, of the 139 residential schools recognized by the legal definition of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA), approximately 60% were run by Catholics. It is therefore logical that the main audience for this visit is the indigenous communities.

Would the rest of the Canadian population therefore be unaffected? On the contrary, I believe that the whole country should feel concerned by what is at stake. I myself have every reason to feel concerned: I am an anthropologist and I have been doing research for more than 25 years on colonization and its impacts, the Algonquian religious landscape and Indian residential schools. But the challenge goes far beyond the borders of academic research.

Rewrite, erase or judge history

What is this issue, exactly?

It is about our relationship to history, that of the construction of a state that marginalized the Aboriginal peoples and tried to assimilate them in order to destroy their societies and their cultures.

The Catholic Church has occupied a large place in this construction, since New France. Men and women religious founded the educational (school, university) and hospital systems. The parishes structured the urban network. The missionaries worked, here and there, to extend the railways, to colonize the land. They influenced politics, promoted agriculture, left their names to multiple toponyms across cities, provinces and territories. Moreover, men and women with the ideas of their time, they wrote and disseminated opinions that were often widely shared by their fellow citizens, but which today would be considered unacceptable.

We have two temptations these days. The first is to say that history is in the past. The second is wanting to rewrite history, wanting to erase it, or not wanting to inherit it.

Many elements of Canada‘s Christian past are no longer valid: we are shocked by the prejudice and racism that have inflicted much suffering on Aboriginal people. They continue to suffer the consequences through the intergenerational transmission of these traumas. In this sense, history still lives on. That we no longer want to pay tribute to figures who have had a devastating effect on indigenous cultures and identities is one thing.

That we judge them is another: how would we have acted, we, at the same time and in their place? Besides, how will we be judged tomorrow by the generations that will succeed us?

Facing the past honestly

History is not made in black and white: it is complex, all in shades of gray, errors, compromises. The monks cared for and trained the populations, protected the French language. Some took up the cause of those they considered their native brothers and sisters. Others, on the contrary, violated them, belittled them and prevented them from practicing their own beliefs.

We cannot undo history. French historian Pierre Nora wrote in 2006 about the French government’s memorial laws regarding genocide and colonization that it was dangerous to criminalize the past and allow what he called a “memorial hegemony”: according to him, it is important to define a collective and national history, rather than giving way to a memory “essentially accusatory and destructive of this history”.

This does not mean denying certain facts for the benefit of others. It means confronting honestly all aspects of this history. Our challenge now is to include Aboriginal perspectives in the collective history, or rather to create a collective history with those of our three solitudes: Anglophone, Francophone and Aboriginal. Then we will have to pass it on.

The dark role of the federal government

Our third temptation is to lay all the blame for the history of residential schools on the missionaries.

Of course, they were largely responsible for it, through the dioceses and the congregations. Their level of responsibility is high. But let’s not forget that it was the federal government that created the system and maintained it, and that it was the Indian Affairs agents who registered the children and sent them to residential schools.

This same government, under pressure from its Superintendent of Indian Affairs, Duncan Campbell Scott, shelved Dr. Peter Bryce’s 1907 report. The latter urged the authorities to urgently put in place measures to limit mortality in Indian residential schools, mainly due to epidemics. This doctor had noticed that at the File Hills Colony school in Saskatchewan (operated by the Presbyterians, then by the United Church of Canada), almost 70% of the children died because of the poor sanitary conditions. Bryce was not heard when he advocated measures as simple as separating the sick from the healthy children.

The general indifference of the population

Nor was public opinion moved by the fact that these boarding schools existed and were intended to “civilize” these children. Thus one could read in the newspaper Progressin April 1957, about the Amos boarding school:

Their education, like the food and clothing they receive, are generous gifts from the government, which is keen to help them adjust to a normal life in a civilized country, striving to build a brave and proud people to defend their essential rights.

The mental and cultural well-being of these children was not taken into consideration, either in the residential schools or elsewhere. How many Aboriginal children have disappeared into the youth protection system since the 1960s (the so-called “Sixties Scoop”), and how many into the health care system?

It took researchers, journalists and government commissions for families to begin to have the tools to search for their loved ones.

We also inherit what bothers us

Land of our ancestors, your forehead is crowned with glorious florets! Because your arm knows how to carry the sword, it knows how to carry the cross! Your history is an epic of the most brilliant exploits. And your valor, steeped in faith, will protect our homes and our rights.

“With steeped faith”, it is there everywhere, in the history of Canada. As Canadians, we live with the benefits that history has bequeathed to us: a democratic, free, safe country, where we have a universal health care system, and so on. We can only inherit what suits us. We also inherit a country where Aboriginal people are less secure than others, where they have been deprived of freedoms and rights to participate in democratic life (they only obtained the right to vote federally in 1960 ), where they may feel unsafe in the healthcare system.

The Pope’s solemn recognition, on Canadian soil, of the prejudice collectively suffered by the Aboriginal peoples is part of a process of reconciliation and reparation that has only just begun so that the past can truly end. We must therefore take this opportunity to accept difficult truths about our collective history and, in doing so, move forward in building a shared future.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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