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“Grave” mistake in claims of Canadian burial sites hurts truth and reconciliation

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Flames engulf St Jean Baptiste Church in Morinville, Alberta, 30 June, 2021, in this still image taken from video obtained from social media. The early morning fire destroyed the century-old Catholic church near Edmonton and was being treated as suspicious by Royal Canadian Mounted Police. (CNS photo/Diane Burrel, social media via Reuters)

“Our country failed the hundreds of children who are buried near a former residential school in Kamloops. Our country failed their families and the communities from which they were ripped away, and our country failed each child who suffered injustices at these appalling institutions across the country. That is the truth. We cannot close our eyes and pretend it never happened.” 

These were the words of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during a special “take note” debate in Canada’s House of Commons in June 2021. He was speaking of reports that a ground-penetrating radar had located the probable remains of 215 children buried at Kamloops Indian Residential School, a government-funded school operated by a Catholic religious order. Trudeau also demanded a personal apology from Pope Francis. 

Following the reports of the mass gravesite and Trudeau’s call for an apology, wooden crosses were erected along the roadside in Kamloops. A child’s dress, red in colour, was hung on cross each to represent the young girls who were buried there. So dramatic was the scene that a photo of the crosses and dresses was awarded World Press Photo of the Year. 

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A month later, Trudeau visited the former Marieval Indian Residential School which was reported to be the site of another 751 child graves. Clutching a teddy bear, he bent down and wept by one of the “graves.” Marieval was also run by a Catholic religious order. 

The backlash was extreme, with a number of Canadian churches being destroyed by deliberately-lit fires in June and July of 2021. These arson attacks still haven’t stopped, with a total of 85 Catholic churches being the subject of fires or other attacks in the last three years. 

A child’s red dress hangs on a cross near the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in Kamloops, British Columbia, in this 6 June, 2021, file photo. Pope Francis plans to read his speeches in Spanish during his 24-29 July trip to Canada. While the Indigenous will be the focus of the trip, concern for the environment and prayers for Ukraine also are expected. (CNS photo/Jennifer Gauthier, Reuters)

In late 2022, Pope Francis visited Canada on what he called “a penitential pilgrimage” and gave the apology that Trudeau had demanded. On the press conference on the return flight, Pope Francis agreed that it was a genocide. This was echoed unanimously by Canada’s parliament later that year. 

The problem with this story is that three years and $8 million later, no human remains have been found at the so-called burial site at Kamloops. Or, for that matter, at any of the other alleged mass grave sites (other than those that appear to be part of cemeteries containing the graves of many people.) Those who announced the existence of unmarked graves have now rephrased the finding to “anomalies” under the surface that they suspect to be graves. 

Predictably, the watering-down of the claims and the lack of evidence did not generate nearly the same national or international interest that the original “discovery” attracted. There were no speeches in parliament, no front-page stories or awards, and no apologies to the 85 Catholic communities whose churches were the subject of retaliatory attacks.  

On Saturday, Pope Francis and Trudeau had their first meeting since that 2022 encounter. In that meeting, Trudeau urged the pope to return indigenous artefacts from Canada held in Vatican museums as another step in the reconciliation process. This is something the pope has agreed to, but it is yet to occur. 

Trudeau seems to place all the responsibility for reconciliation on the pope and the Catholic Church. For his part, Trudeau offered no apology for his own part in perpetuating the myth of mass graves, or defaming the many religious sisters who worked in those institutions. He certainly made no apologies for the retaliatory attacks on churches throughout the country he leads.  

Reconciliation is not a one-way street. We should acknowledge that the need for repentance and reconciliation on the part of the church does not absolve others from their responsibility to work towards the same. The church does need to be part of the reconciliation process because our participation in the residential school system meant many children were separated from their families. A government policy of compulsory attendance and the lack of availability of schools in remote areas meant that some First Nations families could only obey the law by sending their children to residential schools and this resulted in a lost connection to kin and country. Additionally, some children did suffer physical or sexual abuse within these schools.  

But accepting responsibility for these actions does not mean that we cannot or should not question other allegations made. Recall that during the Royal Commission, one school of thought was that the church should not cross-examine any witnesses nor launch any defence against even blatantly spurious claims. This type of attitude is nothing more than a false humility because real humility is always connected to the truth. Truth and justice and healing are all interdependent. You can’t have one without the others. 

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