Since the remains of 215 children buried on the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia were found on May 27, the issue of residential schools and the treatment of indigenous people has dominated Canadian media. More such discoveries followed, including 751 children at a former residential school in Cowessess, Saskatchewan, and another 160 at the former Kuper Island Industrial School site near Chemainus, B.C. More such discoveries are expected as indigenous groups use Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) units to locate more potential unmarked burial sites. In most cases the deaths were caused by disease and neglect.
Residential schools were government-sponsored religious schools that were established to assimilate indigenous children into Euro-Canadian culture. Although the first residential facilities were established in New France, the term usually refers to schools established after 1880. Residential schools were created by the Canadian government as an attempt to both educate and convert indigenous youth and to assimilate them into Canadian society. They were run by Roman Catholic and Protestant churches. However, the schools disrupted lives and communities, causing long-term problems among the First Nations. The last residential school closed in 1996.
It was indeed a racist policy, rooted in the concept that indigenous people were primitive savages who had to be stripped of their culture and heritage, and assimilated into white Canadian society. There they were forbidden to speak their own language, practice their own culture and they were subjected to all sorts of physical and even sexual abuse. It remains a shameful episode in Canada’s history and one that deserves to be acknowledged, studied and commemorated.
But the reaction has been severe, prompting many to think that it has gone too far. Statues of John A. MacDonald, who as the first prime minister of Canada initiated the policy in 1880, and Queen Victoria, who reigned at the time, among many others, have been torn down. This year’s Canada Day celebrations were subdued, and even cancelled in some places. Flags were flown at half-mast to honor the victims. But, by far, the worst reaction has been the destruction and defacement of churches across the country. As of July 14, 47 Christian churches in Canada have been vandalized, burned down or desecrated, including two Ukrainian Catholic ones – St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Church in Fisher Branch, Manitoba, and Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Ukrainian Catholic Church in Calgary, Alberta.
The Ukrainian Catholic Church has been rather muted in its response. There was no statement regarding the vandalization on the web site of the Archeparchy of Winnipeg, which serves Manitoba, while Bishop David, Eparch of Edmonton, which serves Alberta, said that, “Many of us were saddened earlier this week when we learned that the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Ukrainian Catholic Parish in Calgary had been vandalized by individuals acting on their own – not once, but twice – alongside many other Roman Catholic parishes throughout Calgary.
“While the Ukrainian Catholic Church in Canada never ran Residential Schools, we can relate to the pain and suffering that our indigenous brothers and sisters are enduring in the recent recovery of the graves of hundreds of children found in several cemeteries in western Canada,” the bishop said.
The Ukrainian Canadian Congress – Alberta Provincial Council called on law enforcement agencies to fully investigate these attacks, noting that, “These are places of worship, where people gather to pray and to reflect. For their parishioners, they are places of peace and spiritual unity. To desecrate these places is unacceptable and has no place in Canada.”
The Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association was even more forthright.
“What happened to indigenous peoples as a result of the residential school system is appalling and we support their efforts to secure a recognition for what they suffered,” said Roman Zakaluzny, chairman of UCCLA. “But to desecrate churches and frighten their peaceful congregants is appalling and must be investigated as a hate crime against an identifiable group, specifically Ukrainian Canadians. Those responsible for this vandalism are obviously ignorant – the Ukrainian Catholic Church is independent of the Roman Catholic Church and no parish of our Ukrainian Catholic Church in Canada was ever involved in the creation, management or functioning of any of the residential schools in this country.”
Not only was no parish of the Ukrainian Catholic Church involved with residential schools, but relations between the indigenous people of Canada and the Ukrainian pioneer settlers were remarkably amicable. Unlike the British and French, Ukrainians had no prejudicial feelings about the First Nations and the indigenous people helped them survive the bitter winters by pointing out which berries were safe to eat and which plants provided medicinal herbs. There was considerable interaction and even intermarriage between the indigenous people and the early Ukrainian settlers. This is a part of history that is little known, but it deserves to be both acknowledged and learned. I will talk more about this topic in my next column.