For 15 years, blameless Christians dedicated to the care and teaching of children within Canada’s Indian Residential Schools (IRS) have been lumped in with the few perverts in their midst and vilified with the most outrageous smears. Yet no political leaders or clerical leaders within the churches — Anglican, Catholic, Presbyterian, and United — which ran these schools for the government of Canada have tried to set the record straight.
Fred Henry, Emeritus Bishop of Calgary, is an exemplary exception. After trying, without success, to get the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) to start asking probing questions about incredible allegations against Catholic nuns and priests employed in the IRS schools, he fired off an email to the Catholic Register on August 13 in which he denounced as a “monstrous libel” all the base insinuations that IRS employees murdered and clandestinely buried thousands of missing IRS children.
Among the most prominent perpetrators of this monstrous libel is Rose Anne Archibald, former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations. In an interview broadcast by the BBC on August 4, 2021, she charged that Canada’s IRS schools were “designed to kill” First Nations children. “And we are seeing proof of that,” she said. “1,600 children, innocent children, have been recovered so far…. We are going to be in the thousands upon ten thousands of children found. I am not sure how you can say that the recovery of that many little children does not signify what it is — genocide.”
On June 23, 2021, Bobby Cameron, Chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations in Saskatchewan, likewise charged: “The world is watching as we unearth the findings of genocide.” CTV News, the Globe and Mail, the National Post, Britain’s The Guardian, and numerous other media outlets across Canada and around the world all published Cameron’s accusation without citing any corroborating evidence to back up his preposterous allegation.
Suppose a group of Jewish organizations were accused of mass murder. Would Canada’s mainstream media demand some proof before publishing the allegation? Of course. But when Canadian Christians are accused of genocide, all of Canada’s major newspapers and broadcasters publish the abominable accusation without even attempting to verify its truth.
In the course of investigating the IRS schools, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) spent six years traveling the country, interviewed more than 6,500 witnesses and examined over 5 million government records. Yet the TRC did not manage to identify even one IRS student who was murdered by an IRS employee.
Correspondingly, despite extensive investigations of murders reported to the TRC, the RCMP has never come up with enough evidence to warrant charging any IRS employee with murdering a residential-school child.
Regardless, the likes of Archibald and Cameron still insist, without any proof, that Christians employed in the IRS schools committed mass murder.
Bishop Henry, in his e-mail to The Catholic Register, focusses on sinister allegations about thousands of missing IRS children. He asks: “Why is the Catholic Church not asking the federal government for proof that even one residential child is actually missing in the sense that his or her parents didn’t know what happened to their child at the time of the child’s death?”
Kimberly Murray, Special Loculator for Missing Children and Unmarked Graves and Burial Sites Associated with Indian Residential Schools, has looked into this issue. In a 175-page interim report released on June 16, she cites the tragic case of Marieyvonne Alaka Ukaliannuk, a four-year-old child who attended the Sir Joseph Bernier Federal Day School in Chesterfield Inlet, Nunavut, early in the 1960s and simply vanished.
Murray relates that Marieyvonne was taken from her hometown of Igloolik, a tiny Arctic island north of Hudson’s Bay, and sent by seaplane 800 kilometers south to Sir Joseph Bernier. During her first year at the school, she hit her head while playing with friends and was so seriously injured that the school sent her to a hospital in Churchill, Manitoba. While there, she contracted tuberculosis and was transferred again, first to a larger hospital in Winnipeg, second to a sanitorium in Toronto, third to a hospital in Montreal, and finally to a convalescent home in the Eastern Townships.
Due to an appalling bureaucratic foul-up, Marieyvonne went missing during all her transfers. And she remained missing for more than 50 years before an indefatigable Innu researcher in Iqaluit finally tracked down the child’s movements and was able to inform her distraught mother that Marieyvonne had died at age eight and was buried in an unmarked grave in the cemetery of a Roman Catholic church in Magog, Quebec.
The disappearance of Marieyvonne was inexcusable. But note: The federal government spent tens of thousands of dollars transferring the little girl from one hospital to another in an attempt to save her life. Is it plausible that this same government abetted genocide in the IRS schools?
In addition to Marieyvonne, Murray cites three sisters from the Pimicikamak (Cross Lake) Cree Nation – Nora, Isobel, and Betsey Osborne – who, she says, were taken away from their community, one by one, during the 1920s and 1930s. Murray alleges: “Their family never saw them again.”
Yet Murray acknowledges in her report that one of the daughters, Betsey, was sent to the St. Joseph’s Indian Residential School in Cross Lake, the very town in which the Pimicikamak reserve is located. What makes Murray think that Betsy’s parents never knew that one of their daughters was attending an IRS school located in their own hometown?
Why, it might also be wondered, was Betsey sent to a residential school in her parents’ hometown? Murray offers no explanation. However, in a cited reference in Murray’s footnotes, researchers at the University of Manitoba report that the Osborne parents “lived on the land for most of the year.” That is to say, they were traditional, nomadic Crees who eked out a bare subsistence living by spending most of the year roaming through the wilderness to hunt, fish, trap and collect wild berries and other edible plants.
Murray suggests that the Osborne parents were forced to send their children to an IRS school. That, to say the least, is questionable. What Murray does not mention in her report is that since 1920, all parents in Ontario have been obligated by law to send their children to school and the great majority of parents, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, willingly do so because they understand that schooling is in the best interest of their child.
In the case of the Osborne daughters, they were all sent to residential schools because there was no other way for them to get a modern education. And the same goes for Marieyvonne: There was no school in Igloolik so the federal government flew her and other island children south, at considerable expense, to the residential school in Chesterfield Inlet.
Most residents of the IRS schools came from similar backgrounds. Yet Murray insists these Indigenous children should not have been obligated to attend a residential school. Does that make sense? Attending a residential school was the only way these children could get any instruction in reading, writing, English, French, or arithmetic. Is it likely that without such a basic education, these Indigenous children would have been better off as adults?
Apart from Marieyvonne and the Osborne sisters, Murray does not cite any other examples of children who mysteriously died and disappeared from an IRS school. Yet she claims that on the basis of historical records and “Survivor truths,” there is solid evidence of thousands of other such cases.
Consider that phrase “Survivor truths.” Designating graduates of IRS schools as survivors implies that their experiences in the IRS schools were comparable to the sufferings of the millions of Jews who were tortured and died in the Nazi death camps. Such a comparison is outrageous.
Besides, what, precisely, are “Survivor truths”? Murray does not say. She implies that anything that former IRS students say about their alleged sufferings in an IRS school must be true and should not be challenged.
Is that so? On October 14, 2022, the CBC reported that Chief Derek Nepinak of the Pine Creek First Nation in western Manitoba had called in the RCMP to investigate evidence of 14 unmarked graves discovered by ground-penetrating radar in the basement of Our Lady of Seven Sorrows Catholic Church, which is located on the site, as an IRS school operated by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate from 1890 to 1969. According to the CBC: “Survivors had spoken about ‘horror stories’ in the basement.” But what happened when the suspected graves were dug up? As Chief Nepinak disclosed on August 18, none contained human remains.
“Survivors” have reported that hundreds of other supposed, unmarked graves have been found by ground-penetrating radar on or near the site of an IRS school. But the fact remains that there is no solid evidence that any of these graves contain any human remains, let alone those of an IRS child.
As for so-called “Survivor truths” about sexual abuse and corporal punishment in the IRS schools, some of these claims are true. And the few employees who perpetrated these crimes cannot be too harshly condemned.
Murray says that “Survivor truths” have established that some of the worst crimes were committed at St. Anne’s Indian Residential School in Moosonee, an institution variously operated by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate and the Grey Nuns between 1904 and 1976. Murray charges: “As has been documented and proven through Survivor testimonies, historical records, police investigations, criminal convictions, civil lawsuits and hundreds of adjudicator decisions, Indigenous children taken to St. Anne’s Indian Residential School were physically, sexually, culturally, and spiritually abused by those entrusted with their care.” She also claims they “were routinely beaten, frozen, whipped and forced to eat moldy food.”
That is appalling, if true.
Edmund Metatawabin, former Chief of Fort Albany First Nation, is a graduate of St. Annes. Like Murray he claims “the whole truth (about St. Anne’s) is reflected in the combined oral stories from all St. Anne’s Survivors.”
In a report headlined “The horrors of St. Anne’s” (March 29, 2018), the CBC alleges: “Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) files reveal the history of abuse at the notorious residential school that built its own electric chair.”
Murray likewise claims in her report: “An electric chair, constructed by school officials, was often used to punish children.”
What is the evidence?
Chief Metatawabin charges in his co-written book Up Ghost River that students were tortured in that electric chair. In 1992, he repeated that allegation to the OPP and called upon the force to investigate all the crimes reportedly committed at St. Anne’s. According to the CBC, the OPP responded by conducting an investigation that lasted more than six years, in the course of which the agency interviewed 700 victims and witnesses. In addition, the CBC relates, the OPP “gathered 900 statements about assaults, sexual assaults, suspicious deaths and a multitude of abuses alleged to have occurred at the school between 1941 and 1972.”
What were the results of this exhaustive investigation? The CBC reports: “Investigators identified 74 suspects and charged seven people. Five were convicted of crimes committed at the residential school.”
Five convictions, of course, is five too many. Two of the convicts were nuns — one Cree and the other Ojibway. They were given suspended sentences for subjecting children to cruel punishments. The other three convicts were laymen charged with indecent assault: One was sentenced to 18 months, another to six months and the third to no jail time at all.
Despite the OPP’s exhaustive investigation, no employee of St. Anne’s was charged with torturing students in the school’s electric chair. To this day, the infamous allegation has never been proven.
Still, Murray alleges that a multitude of horrendous crimes were committed at St. Anne’s, but she offers no credible evidence to support the allegation and says nothing in her report about the outcome of the OPP investigation.
Were appalling crimes committed at some IRS schools? Of course. Should the schools have done more to help students retain their Indigenous languages and appreciate aspects of enduring value in their traditional cultures? Again, of course. Should many of the students in these schools have had better housing, better food, and better health care? Yes, indeed.
But did employees in the church-run IRS schools subject the innocent children in their care to systematic torture and mass murder? Absolutely not. To insist otherwise is a vile lie or, at best, an ignorant smear spread by well-meaning people who have been taken in by anti-IRS propaganda.
Despite the countless number of base lies spread about the IRS schools, leaders of the Anglican, Catholic, Presbyterian, and United churches have done nothing to defend the reputations of their innocent, former IRS employees or to underline all the good works that these dedicated Christians performed to safeguard, educate, and nurture IRS children.
Instead, what we get from Canada’s church leaders are extravagant apologies. In 2019, Fred Hiltz, then primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, apologized for “spiritual harm” inflicted on IRS children. Last year, Pope Frances went so far as to join in the chorus of critics who falsely accuse the IRS schools of perpetrating genocide.
That charge is nonsense. If Christians in the IRS schools were guilty of genocide, so were all Christian missionaries down through the centuries, including those who converted my Gaelic-speaking, Highland Scottish ancestors to Christianity and taught them to read, write, and speak English.
In Canada as in all common law countries, the prosecution must prove that a person charged with a violent crime acted with evil intent. Were Sir John A. MacDonald and Egerton Ryerson, the first chief superintendent of the Ontario public school system, acting with evil intent when they established the IRS schools? Of course not. Like the vast majority of employees in the IRS system, they were motivated to safeguard IRS children, provide them with at least a basic education and spare them from a life of dire poverty.
Murray charges in her interim report: “The Indian Residential Schools System and those that operated it created conditions and perpetrated violence against Indigenous children that led to their deaths.”
Bishop Henry, in his email to the Catholic Register, wonders when the CCCB is going to respond to such allegations. He asks: “Would it help Indigenous people across Canada to better lives if the Catholic Church did go so far as to take responsibility for the murder and clandestine burial of thousands of residential school children in the name of reconciliation?”
The Catholic Register put that question to Archbishop Richard Smith of Edmonton and Archbishop Don Bolen of Regina, two of the leading spokesmen on Indigenous issues for the Catholic Church. In response, Smith and Bolen told the Register that “they are waiting for the final report from Murray before commenting on the special advisor’s work.”
That is pitiful. It is long past time that Anglican, Catholic, Presbyterian, and United church leaders spoke up in defense of all their faithful parishioners who are repeatedly vilified by hate-mongering, anti-Christian zealots.