I timed this bulletin carefully, with the aim that it would come out on Canada Day. I would love to wish readers a happy Canada Day 2021, but like many Canadians I find myself in little mood to celebrate the nation or its birthday this year. For those who are unaware, June was a hard month for Canadians. It began on 28 May, when news broke that 215 unmarked graves had been found at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia. The deceased are likely without exception former students of the school. The residential schools are Canada’s great shame, an integral part of a system established by the Indian Act of 1876, and whose aims and outcomes can be defined as landing somewhere between apartheid and genocide. Given the horrible realities of the residential school system, it was unsurprising that such graves existed. Indeed, the national Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the matter of the residential schools had already concluded that many students had died while attending these institutions. But hearing about dead children in the abstract is very different from learning that hundreds had been found in unmarked graves behind a church-run school. Because a large part of the crisis with regard to the residential schools is that most were run by various Protestant denominations and Catholic dioceses and religious communities on behalf of the federal government. The Kamloops School for instance was for most its history run by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. The discovery of the 215 children at Kamloops was followed by a series of similar revelations over the last few weeks, including the discovery on 24 June of 751 unmarked graves at the site of another former residential school (also Catholic-run for much of its history) in Marieval, Saskatchewan. Even as I write this on 30 June, I just read about another 182 graves found at the site of the former St. Eugene’s School near Cranbrook, British Columbia.
These discoveries are provoking a crisis for Christianity in Canada. A survey released 8 June indicated that two-thirds of Canadians placed the blame for the residential schools on “the Church” rather than on the government. The Catholic Church will likely face the greatest brunt of the anger emerging from these discoveries. This is largely a product of demographics: as the Catholic Church is Canada’s largest religious body both historically and today, Catholic institutions collectively were responsible for running the highest percentage of residential schools. Over the years, there have been formal apologies from various Catholic institutions for their roles in the residential school system. (Perhaps most worth noting here are those of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate—who not only ran the Kamloops school but were responsible for the greatest number of Catholic-run residential schools—as well as the Jesuits of Canada, who were responsible for the residential school in Spanish, Ontario. Perhaps also of interest is the Jesuits of Canada’s statement on the discovery at the Kamloops school). Nonetheless, many in Canada—including many survivors of the residential school system—feel that an apology from the head of the Catholic Church is needed for reconciliation to truly move forward, and in the wake of the recent discoveries, calls for a formal, public papal apology have intensified. Rightly or wrongly, there seems a general perception that the Catholic Church has not done enough to make amends for the residential school.
I do not feel qualified to speak to how the Canadian Catholic Church should address these criticisms. I do not have sufficient expertise in either contemporary Christianity nor Canada’s indigenous people. Nonetheless, over the years, I’ve given some thought towards how it might look to implement Lonergan’s thought in a particularly Canadian context, and at a time of profound national reckoning, I can only wish that we had access to Fr. Lonergan’s thoughts on these matters. Lonergan, after all, was born in Buckingham, Quebec, just across the river from the nation’s capital, and spent much of his career teaching and writing in Canada. The last few weeks have me thinking even more about this question. I cannot speak for Fr. Lonergan of course, but I rather suspect that he would start with an observation about our intuitive sense that this horror is something to which we must respond, perhaps through anger, or sadness, or apologetics for the residential school system. I suspect that he might begin with this shared intuitive sense that we must operate at the level of responsibility, and then counsel us to think attentively, intelligently, and reasonably before and as we respond. No doubt, such attentive, intelligent, and reasonable work would consider not only the concrete details of what happened in the residential schools, but also the values that led people to think that what amounts to cultural genocide was a good idea. It is not difficult to imagine that a system which resulted in large unmarked cemeteries containing hundreds of children is one characterized by distorted values and significant oversight. Lonergan, I think, helps furnish us with tools that will help us understand why the horrors of the residential schools happened, and also to think through how we should best respond to our growing awareness of said horrors.