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Church leaders must rebut false residential school claims—not just repent

Church leaders must rebut false residential school claims—not just repent

Rodney A. Clifton

(Originally published in True North, February 1, 2024)

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The German pastor, theologian and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, is reported to have said: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

From the middle of the 1930s, Bonhoeffer was trying to wake the German Lutheran Church to the impending crisis that eventually resulted in the Holocaust. After spending his last couple of years trying to bring the German church to oppose the genocide. Bonhoeffer was hanged by the Nazis about a month before the war ended. 

Is Bonhoeffer’s warning relevant to Canada?

Many Canadians seem to believe that employees of the churches that managed most of the Indian Residential Schools (IRS) engaged in genocide against Indigenous children.

The Chief Commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), Justice Murray Sinclair, told Matt Galloway on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) radio program The Current that between 15,000 and 25,000 Indigenous children are missing from these schools. In Justice Sinclair’s mind, a genocide had taken place.

Even more damning, the House of Commons, including members of all political parties, passed a motion by NDP MP Leah Gazan that claimed that the IRS system was a genocide against Indigenous children.  

No evidence was presented, but the motion passed unanimously without debate.

In the months since the Kamloops announcement, over 90 churches across Canada were vandalized or set on fire, supposedly because of anger generated by the reported genocide. But a sizeable number of the desecrated churches were members of denominations that played no part in the operation of Canada’s Indian residential school system. 

We know that Indigenous children died while enrolled in a residential school, but we also know that most died from TB and other highly communicable diseases, and their bodies were most often returned to their home communities for burial. If that did not happen, it was because of very special circumstances, and not because of a desire to conceal the death.

To date, there has been no forensic evidence that Indigenous children were murdered and their bodies unceremoniously buried in unmarked graves in schoolyards.

There are no references to genocide in the TRC Report, and there are no verified reports of parents asking about their children who went to a residential school and never returned home. Also, there are no reports of missing children from school inspectors, optometrists, medical doctors, dentists, social workers, Indian agents, Chiefs, or Band Councilors, all of whom regularly visited residential schools. 

Thankfully, some alternative Canadian news agencies — C2C, The Dorchester Review, True North, and Western Standard — have published articles questioning the claim that there was a genocide committed against Indigenous children in residential schools.

But surprisingly, the churches that managed the residential schools — Roman Catholic, Anglican, United Church, Mennonite and Baptist — have remained silent, neither responding to these accusations nor defending the people they employed to teach and care for the students. 

Simply put, the Canadian churches have not learned the lesson Bonhoeffer tried to teach the German Lutheran Church: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

Now is the time for these Canadian churches to defend themselves and their innocent employees, specifically those who worked in the schools, often for long hours, often in difficult conditions, and often with little pay.

No one denies that individual IRS employees who are found guilty of wrongdoing should be charged, and if convicted, appropriately punished. Their names and crimes should be published, even if the wrongdoers are deceased.

But what should the churches do besides repent for acknowledged failures and unintended harms?

First, they should acknowledge that they have not properly supported their non-Indigenous and Indigenous employees, many of whom dedicated their lives to working in residential schools. 

Second, the churches should say that they will no longer remain silent when they hear unsubstantiated claims accusing their employees of neglecting, murdering and burying Indigenous children in unmarked graves. 

Third, the churches should remind Canadians that our justice system assumes people are innocent until proven guilty. Without providing reliable evidence, it is unjust for government officials, Indigenous leaders, TRC Commissioners and Members of Parliament to claim that church employees murdered Indigenous children and buried their bodies in schoolyards.

Fourth, the churches should invite IRS employees — the few who are still alive — to tell their stories for both their parishioners and other Canadians. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report actually recommends that the churches that managed these schools educate their parishioners about their work in residential schools (see Call to Action 59). 

Finally, the churches should call for fair and rigorous forensic investigations of all the sites where Indigenous children are reported to have been buried. An independent agency with the requisite technical expertise must do this work. A reliable investigation cannot be done by either the churches or the Indigenous bands because both have a partisan stake in the findings. As well, the churches must ensure that the evidence is published widely, for all Canadians to know.

Indeed, the time is overdue for Canadian churches to carry out what the German Lutheran Church in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s time did not do: speak out against the injustice that is being inflicted on them and their parishioners.

The truth will set both the churches and Canadian society free.

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