On my vote against calling for a Papal apology for Residential SchoolsMay 1, 2018
Today, the House of Commons voted on the following motion, proposed by the NDP’s Charlie Angus:
“That, in responding to the call of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to move our nation on a path of true healing for the crimes of the residential school era, the House: (a) invite Pope Francis to participate in this journey with Canadians by responding to Call to Action 58 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report and issue a formal papal apology for the role of the Canadian Catholic Church in the establishment, operations, and abuses of the residential schools; (b) call upon the Canadian Catholic Church to live up to their moral obligation and the spirit of the 2006 Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement and resume best efforts to raise the full amount of the agreed upon funds; and (c) call on the Catholic entities that were involved in the running of the residential schools to make a consistent and sustained effort to turn over relevant documents when called upon by survivors of residential schools, their families, and scholars working to understand the full scope of the horrors of the residential school system in the interest of truth and reconciliation.”
Most of my colleagues, of all parties, voted in favour of this motion, but I voted against it.
The magnitude of the tragic event which is the subject of the motion—Canada’s decades-long experience of forced attendance by indigenous children at boarding schools, without the consent or approval of their parents—is so great that my decision to vote against the motion requires an explanation.
My decision is based not upon an ahistorical rejection of the scope of this terrible episode which was characterized by the race-based stripping-away of the most fundamental civil rights, but rather on the inappropriateness of one of the Houses of the Parliament of Canada presuming upon itself the role of assigning guilt to, and demanding apologies from, another institution whose roles in the tragedy was not as great as our own.
Before explaining the above, I’ll take a moment to review the extent of the wrong that was committed. For decades, starting in the Nineteenth Century but with particular aggression after school attendance was made mandatory in 1920, over 150,000 indigenous children were separated forcibly from their parents and sent to boarding schools, known at the time as “residential schools.”
A substantial number of these died while separated from their families; a chart published by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission shows that in the years 1921-1950, the death rate, per 100,000 children at the Residential Schools, was never lower than twice the contemporaneous rate for children of the same age in the Canadian population as a whole, and it was sometimes six times the rate for the general population. [Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Report, vol. I, Graph 4 (p. 91)]
While the following should not be regarded as an exhaustive list, here are a few specific elements of this great wrong that should be laid at the feet of the Parliament of Canada:
- It was Parliament that enacted the 1920 amendment to the Indian Act stating the following:
Every Indian child between the ages of seven and fifteen years who is physically able shall attend such day, industrial or boarding school as may be designated by the Superintendent–General….
The Superintendent–General may appoint any officer or person to be a truant officer to enforce the attendance of Indian children at school, and for such purpose a truant officer shall be vested with the powers of a peace officer, and shall have authority to enter any place where he has reason to believe there are Indian children between the ages of seven and fifteen years….
Any parent, guardian or person with whom an Indian child is residing who fails to cause such child, being between the ages aforesaid, to attend school as required … shall, on the complaint of the truant officer, be liable on summary conviction before a justice of the peace or Indian agent to a fine of not more than two dollars and costs, or imprisonment for a period not exceeding ten days or both, and such child may be arrested without a warrant and conveyed to school by the truant officer.
[Indian Act, Section 10]
- It was Parliament that authorized the use of the RCMP, when necessary, to forcibly remove indigenous children from their parents. Indeed, one of the purposes of compulsory attendance was to force parents to stop, in essence, voting with their feet (or with their children’s feet) against residential schools and in favour of day schools, which were more expensive to administer. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission notes,
Prior to 1920, when the Indian Act was amended to allow Indian Affairs to compel children to attend residential school, the most effective form of resistance that parents could make was to simply refuse to enroll their children. This measure was so effective that it contributed to the closure of a number of residential schools.
[A Knock on the Door, Winnipeg, University of Manitoba Press, 2016, p.104]
- It was Parliament and government agencies that chose, for reasons of cost and convenience, to concentrate many children in residential schools that were far from home rather than in the day schools which were also authorized by the above-quoted section of the Indian Act.
- It was Parliament that voted the funds for these schools—and that kept the schools perpetually underfunded, which in turn resulted in the crowded conditions that led to the spread of tuberculosis and, to a lesser extent, other diseases. It was Parliament that chose to ignore the recommendations of the scathing Bryce Report on the state of health conditions at Residential Schools. Following these recommendations would, of course, have cost money that the churches did not have, and that Parliament chose not to allocate.
In the course of my research for the present remarks, I came across a February 8, 1927 statement in which Charles A. Stewart, Superintendent-General of Indian Affairs and Liberal MP for the riding of Edmonton West, told the House of Commons that the federal government’s practice, up to that point, of expecting church organizations to “construct school buildings and maintain them for a grant that was less than $20 per head … was hardly fair.” [Commons debates, February 8, 1927, p. 121]
Given that it was Parliament that mandated these schools, and that determined, via its agents, which children were sent to which school, and that then guaranteed the crowded conditions that caused the spread of tuberculosis, it is hard to see how Parliament can today make demands for apologies from one of these churches.
There can be no doubt that the parliamentarians of that time understood perfectly well that the federal government bore primary responsibility for the control of these waves of epidemic. I do not mean to suggest that it was as easy, in a world that did not yet contain antibiotics, as it is today to control epidemics of contagious disease. But measures against overcrowding, and the use of quarantines, was well understood, and the government had a real power to save lives, upon which it repeatedly failed to act. A few months after Stewart made his comments, the leader of the Opposition, R.B. Bennett, told the House of Commons,
I was struck with the statement made in committee the other day of the very rapid decrease in the number of Indians in British Columbia, and it led me to make certain investigations with respect to the conditions in [Alberta]. I cannot think that the medical service given to the Indians is all that it should be, and I strongly urge the desirability of having better medical service for the Indians in Alberta…It is not, to say the least, very creditable to us that so many of them have passed away so quickly, and I refer particularly to the children and to the younger men and women.
[Commons debates, April 13, 1927, p. 2441]
Returning to the present, I do not believe that it is appropriate that current members of the House of Commons, who are too young to have participated in establishing or administering the Residential Schools, should be prohibited by some notional burden of inherited guilt, from speaking out on the issue. As I told the House of Commons on October 3, 2001, when we were debating a different request for an apology from another third party (in that case, from the Crown for the deportation of the Acadians in the 1750s), “I do not accept the notion that an institution can maintain a heritage of collective guilt which is imposed upon successive generations.”
This was, at the time, my way of agreeing with a sentiment most famously expressed by a former prime minister, Pierre Trudeau, who, on his last day in the House of Commons (June 29, 1984) had stated that he could express regret for another of Canada’s great historical wrongs—the forcible internment of loyal Japanese-Canadians in 1942, but that he could not apologize. Responding to a question from Brian Mulroney on the question of an apology, Trudeau stated,
It seems to me that he [Mr. Mulroney] is making much of a semantic difference between an apology and a regret. As for me, I am always prepared, with some effort, to apologize for my actions….[but] I do not see how I can apologize for some historic event to which we or these people in this House were not a party. We can regret that it happened. But why mount to great heights of rhetoric to say that an apology is much better than an expression of regret?
Perhaps, in retrospect, both Mulroney and Trudeau were defending suboptimal rhetorical positions. Trudeau’s preferred term, “regret,” seems, when seen through the rear-view mirror, to be unduly passive, as if to excuse those of us who inherit stewardship over institutions which committed grave wrongs in the past from our moral obligation to set right these wrongs, or to condemn these wrongs in the most uncompromising language.
But Mulroney’s preferred term, “apologize,” creates the logical and moral problem of a transfer of guilt because it fails to distinguish between the guilt of those who committed the wrongs, and the very different duty of those who are their successors. Worse yet would be to leave the impression that the present-day occupants of these elected offices have the right to accept, on behalf of those citizens they represent, a burden of collective moral culpability for wrongs in which the present-day citizenry has played no part. It is of course obvious that present-day citizens cannot reasonably be seen as bearing even the lowest level of culpability (for passive compliance), as they simply were not present at the time that the wrongs took place.
By contrast, it is entirely reasonable for present-day legislators to accept, on behalf of those for whom they enact laws, a reasonable obligation—on behalf of a citizenry that has reason to seek solidarity with the victims of past wrongs, but not to lower their head with shame for wrongs in which they did not participate—to take whatever actions must be taken, however costly these may be, to repair that portion of the damage which is still capable of being repaired.
We have an even more important responsibility: making sure that our institutions will never again be used for wrongs of this sort, against some new group of victims. And such responsibility is far more likely to be accepted by a population that is invited to join in the condemnation of past wrongs, rather than one that merely “regrets” these wrongs, as one might regret a past natural disaster. Likewise, apologies that imply a collective, population-wide guilt that is unconnected with agency are hardly likely to produce the most mature exercise of moral agency from that population when such maturity is needed in the future.
Bearing this in mind, one can be forgiven, thirty-four years after this debate between these two great statesmen, that nobody had the chance to suggest to each of them that the right word to use, in place of “apologize” or “regret,” would have been “condemn.” Surely there is not a single MP serving today who would not join whole-heartedly in condemning the wrong done to the Acadians in the 1750s, the Japanese-Canadians in the 1940s, and in particular, the terrible wrong of the Residential Schools, which, in addition to cultural suppression and many instances of sexual abuse, resulted in far more deaths than the previous two wrongs combined.
This allows me to return to a direct discussion of Mr. Angus’ motion. On May 1, 2007, I supported another motion on the subject of Residential Schools:
That this House apologize to the survivors of Indian Residential Schools for the trauma they suffered as a result of policies intended to assimilate First Nations, Inuit and Métis children, causing the loss of aboriginal culture, heritage and language, while also leaving a sad legacy of emotional, physical and sexual abuse.
[Proposed by Gary Merasty, Liberal MP for Desnethé—Missinippi—Churchill River, SK]
In this way, the House of Commons in 2007 acknowledged its own role in the Residential Schools tragedy. This came some twenty-three years after the debate between Trudeau and Mulroney, and the term “apologize” had, by this time, become the worldwide standard for dealing with such statements of recognition. As well, the wording seemed to me to be, on the whole, a pretty clear acceptance that it was on behalf of the House of Commons itself, rather than of any person who had not had agency in the creation and / or perpetuation of the Residential Schools policy, that the apology was being offered. Voting in favour of the motion therefore seemed to be the right thing to do.
By contrast, today’s motion calls on an external individual, Pope Francis, to apologize for a wrong in which he himself played no role, and in which the organization which he heads—the Roman Catholic Church—played a role that is smaller than the one played by the institution calling for the apology—the House of Commons.
This in itself would have caused me to vote against this motion. But an examination of the historical record shows that there are further problems with the motion. The Roman Catholic Church is, like the Crown, an institution which is notionally unitary, but which in practice is compound, with many subsidiary institutions. An action taken in the name of the Crown was not necessarily done by the monarch, or with the knowledge of his or her advisors.
Back in 2001, this was one of the reasons that I opposed the motion calling for the Crown to apologize for the grave wrong done to the Acadians. Their deportation had been conducted by the colonial governors of Massachusetts Bay and Nova Scotia, without the direct knowledge of King George II or his ministers in Great Britain (at least, until after the fact). This does not excuse the British ministers for subsequent inaction, but it means that if the International Court of Justice had existed at that time, King George and his ministers would not have been found to have been the primary guilty parties.
This is likewise true with the Roman Catholic Church. The residential schools administered in the name of the Roman Catholic Church were, in practice, run by a series of semi-autonomous religious orders. I do not have a precise list of which orders ran which schools, but I am aware that at least one of the orders, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, issued an apology as far back as 1991. That apology, which is quite lengthy, states, inter alia, “We apologize for the part we played in … cultural, ethnic, linguistic and religious imperialism….” As well, in a remarkable demonstration of the generous attitude towards other religious traditions that has come to characterize the Roman Catholic Church since Vatican II, the Oblates wrote, “we wish to apologize as well for our past dismissal of many of the riches of Native religious tradition.”
Some eighteen years later, in 2009, Pope Benedict XVI met, in Vatican City, with several representatives of Canada’s indigenous communities. He expressed his “sorrow at the anguish caused by the deplorable conduct of some members of the Church” and offered “sympathy and prayerful solidarity.” The word “apology” was not used, but I am genuinely uncertain that it would have been the best word for him to use. To me it makes sense that a man whose job it is to be punctilious in his assignment of moral categories ought not to be imprecise in his use of these terms.
Pope Benedict did offer his “sympathy and prayerful solidarity.” While he also did not use the language of condemnation that I regard as being the appropriate language to characterize Parliament’s attitude towards the worst of our own institution’s past actions, he did use language that amounted to much the same thing: “[A]cts of abuse cannot be tolerated in society.”
In 2009, Phil Fontaine, who was then the Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, was pleased with the way in which the pope’s words were expressed. Chief Fontaine stated, “We never thought for a moment we would be here to be received by the Holy Father to talk about an experience that has caused so much pain and suffering to so many.” [Quoted in “Righting Canada’s Wrongs”]
Benedict XVI has since vacated the papal office. It may be that Pope Francis will, in time, come independently to the conclusion that further words of solace, solidarity and love are appropriate. He may even conclude that the best way of doing the morally right thing, as the present-day occupant of the papal throne, is to precisely follow the formula for an apology laid out in Call to Action #58 of the 2015 report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is referenced in Mr. Angus’ motion. But if he does so freely, his words will be far more meaningful than if he speaks under compulsion from an institution whose actions in this matter were far more materially destructive and far more morally distressing than those of the Roman Catholic Church.
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