On June 2, Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said the Pope needs to issue an apology for the role the Catholic Church played in Canada’s residential school system.
And, of course, the Roman Catholic Church needs to confess, beg forgiveness and make amends for its sins. This necessity is hardly deniable.
Canada may piously point out that it has indeed, itself, already apologized. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s apology in 2008 was a clear public acknowledgement of wrongdoing. Yet it was an apology in words and only partly in deed.
For Canada, it is a partial confession. Yes, the country facilitated the capture, captivity, torment and re-education of thousands of Indigenous children and Harper’s apology admitted this. But what Canada’s apology failed to acknowledge is what it gained, and retains, from the offence.
Canada is, in fact, a Claudius, the yearning-to-be-repentant antagonist in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Canada wishes to be repentant, but it cannot be so. In the play, Claudius kneels before God in the chapel and attempts to confess and ask for forgiveness,\ for the murder of King Hamlet.
Yet he cannot sincerely do so:
But O, what form of prayer
Can serve my turn? ‘Forgive my foul murder’?
That cannot be, since I am still possessed
Of those effects for which I did the murder.”
Claudius is still possessed of Hamlet’s crown and his wife and all that his privilege as king of Denmark has accrued to him. In fact, repentance, with restitution, is too much for him: “May one be pardoned and retain th’offense?”
Canada, and the provinces, retain the offence and are still possessed of those effects it gained from the Indian Act, the residential schools and the reserve system. What they retain is land, much of it unceded, especially in British Columbia. This is land illegally occupied according to the terms of the Royal Proclamation of 1768, a law enshrined as fully Canadian and fully current in the Charter and Constitution. But Supreme Court rulings prove again and again the occupation is illegal under Canadian law.
But the question of the moment is residential schools and the suffering, missing and murdered children who attended them. How do schools play into this land question, the nation-building question? Was not the quest to absorb Indigenous people into the body politic the reason to deprive them of language and culture?
In fact, it is more sinister than just cultural genocide. The residential school question really needs to be framed in terms of how one usurps territory from those who do not wish to surrender it, from those who are more than willing to fight to defend it. How does Canada take as its own the territory of those who have lived on and died on the land, and lived and died for the land for more than 10,000 years?
The answer, if you can bring yourself to believe that it was ever Canadian policy, is to keep little children hostages.
This is not a nation-building strategy we hear spoken about much. But it’s there in the Indian Department’s records we’re allowed to see.
According to E. Dewdney, the superintendent general of Indian Affairs in Prime Minister John A. Macdonald's second term as prime minister, residential schools were a tool to prevent Indigenous resistance to the occupation by Canada, and Canadians, of their land. One of the benefits of residential schools, Dewdney argued, was that, in the event they planned to resist the occupation, “the Indians would regard [the children] as hostages given to the whites and would hesitate to commit any hostile acts that might endanger their children’s well-being.”
This abhorrent policy position is reiterated by the Indian Department’s J. A. Macrae, who wrote that it is unlikely "that any Tribe or tribes would give trouble of a serious nature to the Government whose members had children completely under Government control."
If these are not anomalous policy statements, they are confessions that children are to be imprisoned as pawns in the nation-building game.
Thus, in significant part, the role of residential schools was not only to kill the Indian in the child, but to control Indigenous resistance during its nation-building endeavour and control them by controlling their children. This is the rank offence that smells to heaven.
And Canada now has the land.
Of course the Roman Catholic Church needs to be accountable for its crimes in realizing residential schools for Canada’s nation-building project. Yet the Roman Catholic Church was just an actor in this genocidal project, which is ultimately Canada’s project. For Canada to demand apologies of its obedient eccelesiastical servant is the depths of hypocrisy. In fact, Canada and the provinces continue to be the beneficiaries of the Church’s action, while the Church, in reputation and power, has clearly been humiliated for its role.
In Secwepemcúl’ecw, in Kamloops, from my white middle-class neighbourhood where I write this, I can see the Kamloops Indian Residential School. My little plot of real estate is in municipal, provincial and federal jurisdiction.
But these jurisdictions are pure fictions, constructed upon the illegitimate acts of colonization —hostage-taking, usurpation and theft. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profane and Canadians are at last compelled to face with sober senses, their real conditions of life, and their relations with their kind.
If Canada is to authentically repent for its sins of colonization, it must move beyond vacuous words. It must provide restitution for its primal offence. And that requires land.