Vatican should return Indigenous artifacts and records of residential schools

Toronto Star [Toronto, Canada]

December 16, 2021

By Star Editorial Board

Sometimes the Vatican can appear so obsessed with papal bulls and encyclicals, and its frequent rounds of damage control, and managing people’s naughty bits, and tabulating the number of angels shaking their booty on the heads of pins, that it forgets the gospel according to Robert Fulghum.

“Don’t take things that aren’t yours.”

“Put things back where you found them.”

As most who have ever cracked the spine on a bestseller know, that was part of Fulghum’s formula for virtuous living as contained in his book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.

It turns out that popes over the decades – especially the apparently avid artifact collector Pius XI — have amassed hundreds of items from Indigenous peoples in Canada, including an antique seal-skin kayak from the Western Arctic.

When news of this broke, Inuvialuit leaders in the region issued a statement demanding the return of the kayak and all Indigenous artifacts held in the Vatican Museum.

While the Vatican says the kayak was a gift, the statement said “it is not the ‘Pope’s kayak’ and rightfully belongs to the Inuvialuit Settlement Region, where its lessons and significance can benefit Inuvialuit culture and communities.”

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops said it would be willing to assist in “mediating that conversation with the Vatican.”

It shouldn’t take much mediating. Or much conversation.

Grace, good manners and basic decency – not to mention the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which supports the repatriation of such objects — suggest that returning the kayak is the proper thing to do.

And the kayak is hardly the most important thing Pope Francis needs to order returned to this country.

For the better part of a century, the Catholic church, and agents of other faiths, operated residential schools in Canada on behalf of the federal government.

Those schools became a source of trauma to Indigenous peoples and a source of abiding shame for the country.

Even now, unmarked graves of innocents are being found across the country. And just as there is no reconciliation without truth and owning up, there can be no peace for families and communities if they are denied access to material that might explain what happened to their loved ones.

According to findings by University of Ottawa researchers, released in November, some of that material likely lies in the vast archival repositories of the Vatican.

“Those records belong to Canada,” Brenda Macdougall, a research chair in Metis family and community traditions, said at the time.

“They belong to the people first and foremost. . . They have to come back through subpoena or the church. The pope himself can suspend canonical law and return them.”

Not that the Vatican wasn’t familiar with the basic principle contained in Fulghum’s book. After all, it has a book of its own.

In it are the Ten Commandments, one of which is: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s goods.”

Scholars say there’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting things. Even things belonging to others, provided there is agreement and compensation. That’s how trading began.

What’s bad for the soul is coveting what is not ours, has not been paid for, and belongs to another “or is owed” to him or her.

What is owed is obvious. It’s time to give back the kayak. And turn over the residential school records.