The Indigenous — here and in Canada — deserve an apology from the Church

Our Sunday Visitor [Huntington IN]

May 21, 2022

By Msgr. Owen F. Campion

Assuming everything comes together — COVID, his bad leg and so on — Pope Francis soon will visit Canada, specifically, parts of the country with a sizable population of Indigenous Canadians.

His visit will have a special purpose. He will be in these areas to offer regret and probably to apologize to the First Canadians for what occurred in the “native schools.” These schools, the last of which closed several generations ago, were established by the Canadian government to mold children of First Canadians into the culture, habits and even religion of Canadians of European descent.

More recently, Canadian officials of European background have recognized, in general, Indigenous Canadians. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pointedly named many Indigenous Canadians to his cabinet and high public positions. In 2021, Queen Elizabeth II, acting as queen of Canada and head of the Canadian nation, appointed as her personal representative in the country an Indigenous Canadian, born and reared in the Inuit tradition.

As attention to First Canadians developed, ugly stories began to circulate about these native schools. Government authorities once virtually seized Indigenous Canadian children and put them in the schools, where the children experienced humiliation and coercion, were forced to adopt English or French, Canada’s two official languages, abandoning their tribal languages. They were compelled to dress in the European style. They were force-fed Christianity. Contact with homes and families was difficult, if not impossible. Physical and even sexual abuse were common.

What precisely does it have to do with American Catholics?

When the pope goes to Canada, his trip will be headline news in this country. If he deplores what happened in the Canadian schools, or asks forgiveness for what happened, it will dominate the media, and many Americans will ask Catholic friends what he has on his mind.

Since Catholic religious and priests operated many schools, Catholics will be tempted to make excuses for faults and failures.

Instead of making excuses, overlooking problems that certainly occurred, a better strategy would be to listen to the what the pope in every likelihood will say, and with him, to express sorrow for schools’ processes that deprived Indigenous Canadian youth of their individualities, self-esteem and connections with their heritage and their relatives, and for physical and sexual abuse, proven to have been present.

Most of all, he will remind all that each person is precious, and each child should have been loved as he or she was, respected and treated accordingly. Beneath all too much of the system was the notion that the Indigenous were inferior to Canadians of European background.

One day, American Catholics may be required to voice their own apologies for forebears who had similar ideas of superiority.

Recently, reports in the United States have taken note of similar schools in this country. Abuse and an actual system of oppression reigned here as well as north of the border.

Many of the Canadian schools were Catholic. Because of Quebec, and the votes of its sizeable, overwhelmingly Catholic population, the Church always stood on firmer ground in Canada than in the United States. The Canadian government more eagerly asked Catholic interests to operate the schools.

In the United States, as attention to Native Americans took hold, in the years following the Civil War, anti-Catholicism was strong, especially in the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant, when many federal policies affecting Native Americans were instituted.

While the Church was not the player here to the extent that it was in Canada, it hardly was absent. Here, of the government schools for Native Americans, roughly a third were Catholic institutions. Catholic interests in this country are investigating what happened in these schools.

Regardless, soon, American Catholics will hear, and be asked, about Church teaching, and the Church and Indigenous people. They will have to respond as Catholics, hopefully, repeating the pope’s words about the majesty of every person.

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s chaplain.