Of mass graves, indigenous people and the Church: Is Canada facing its moment of truth?


Will the indigenous people get justice for historical wrongs committed by the Church? A native man in Brazil (Photo: Rahul Kumar)

Four Catholic churches have been found destroyed by fire in Canada in a matter of a few days. All the churches were located on indigenous lands in British Columbia province in western Canada.

The BBC reports that Canada had marked the National Indigenous People's Day last Monday when the first two churches were found burnt. By Saturday, two more were found completely damaged. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) said they're treating Saturday's fires as suspicious.

The church incidents come on the heels of mass graves of native Canadian children being found over the past two months at different Christian schools. Some of the mass graves contained the bodies of children as young as three years.

In the first discovery in May, bodies of 215 children were found buried on the site of one of Canada's largest indigenous residential schools, putting an uncomfortable spotlight on the dark side of Christianity. The Kamloops Indian Residential School was funded by the Canadian government and was run by the Catholic church. News reports say that many children were emotionally, physically and sexually abused.

A photograph from an exhibition on indigenous communities. What is the future of an indigenous child? (Photo: Rahul Kumar)

The USA Today quotes Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, director of the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at the University of British Columbia, as saying: "It was obscene what happened in Canada, and I know from speaking to survivors of Indian (native) boarding schools in the United States, this was not isolated to Canada". Turpel-Lafond is also a member of the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation.

MD, Development Interlinks International, Dr Ajith Chandran has researched with First Nation communities in Canada. Talking about the Canada incidents, Chandran told India Narrative: "The situation of the indigenous people in Canada is such that their indigenous knowledge, values and perceptions have not been given adequate importance in the society."

Chandran adds: "The atrocities faced by First Nation children in residential schools is well known. The extent to which these issues have happened has to be ascertained though. The recent incidents are manifestations of what happened during that period. Scars still exist and the healing process is ongoing".

Even as Canada faced international embarrassment over the discovery of child graves and the role of the Catholic religion in human rights violations, a second unmarked grave of 750 people was found by an indigenous group in a Catholic residential school. These graves were discovered at the Marieval residential school, in the Saskatchewan province of Canada. This school too was managed by the Roman Catholic Church from 1899 to 1997.

The discovery of the second grave and strong suspicions that there might be more similar mass graves in Christian schools has now turned the spotlight to the highest seat of Christianity - the Vatican. The Roman Catholic Church that ran Canada's schools has not apologised for the deaths of the school children. The Pope too is under pressure.

Canada Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has apologised as the country confronts one of the darkest chapters in its history. Trudeau said: “Together, we must acknowledge this truth, learn from our past, and walk the shared path of reconciliation, so we can build a better future”.

Authorities have started investigations into the mass graves and hope to pin accountability for the deaths of indigenous children. It is believed that the country followed a law in which indigenous children had to forcibly undergo education in Christian schools where at least 150,000 students were separated from their families. One of the main motives behind separating indigenous children from families was to assimilate them into Canadian society and convert them into Christianity.

Last year, a similar situation had erupted across the US when the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests underlined racism prevalent in the American society. The BLM protests, which oftened turned violent, ignited after the murder of George Floyd, who suffocated to death under a knee lock imposed by a white police officer. Protests over Floyd's death spread to Europe and spotlighted racial injustice against the African and minority communities in the US.

Just like the BLM protests prised open the truth over race relations in the US, the unearthing of school graves in Canada is highlighting human rights violations spurred by Christian organisations during the colonial rule in Canada.