Catholic Church of Montreal > News > Topics > Truth and Reconciliation Commission > Churches, a Cog in the Colonial Machine

Churches, a Cog in the Colonial Machine

When we speak about residential schools, the question of the role the churches played will eventually come up. They played society assimilator in keeping with the program launched by the Canadian government of John A. McDonald. In the eyes of many, they represent those chiefly responsible for the abuse and mistreatment suffered by the First Nations.

It would be easy to end on this note. Especially since it is the consensus of today's member churches, which include Anglican, Presbyterian, United and Catholic, the past church involvement fell short of expectations.

But it is important to acknowledge the positives aspects.

Beyond the sordid stories heard in Sharing Circles, happy experiences were also mentioned. A section called The Life of the Staff, in the commissioners' report titled They Came for the Children, talks about friendships developed between former students and schools' staff, providing fond memories which reflect a positive influence by staff members.

Thus, in 2005, Father Jean-Marie Pochat, OMI, who was long-time director of Grandin College in Fort Smith in the Northwest Territories, was invested as a Member of the Order of Canada at the initiative of former students. Also in 2003 former teacher Ralph Ritcey, was eulogized by one of his former students, Peter Irniq.  According to him, Ritcey "really cared about the future of the Inuit." He "defended their rights and played an important role in the subsequent elimination of colonialism in the Arctic."

Difficult Conditions

Concerning church involvement, the Commissioners wrote: "Collectively, they were a cog in a colonial machine that was based on a rigorous discipline to suppress indigenous culture." They also report that the conditions in the schools were precarious, not only for children but also for the staff. "Like the students who endured unhealthy living conditions, teachers lived in spartan living conditions. Rarely were they given the means to properly care for the children, let alone teach them."

Religious personnel were also underpaid. "As staff, they were supposed to find their sole motivation through their religious commitment.  They had to work for less pay than other teachers. "

While the Catholic Church put the responsibility of its schools squarely in the hands of their religious orders, protestant churches had to recruit teachers, taking into account their Christian zeal. "Thus, a candidate for a position in a Presbyterian school wrote: "For four years I felt a calling to dedicate my life to extending the Kingdom of God amongst pagans. And He has awakened in me a burning desire to spend the rest of my life among these, here in my beloved homeland.' "

Also in British Columbia, a teacher left his post without notice in 1911, "denouncing in his letter of resignation the treatment of the students by the director. The Anglican Church investigated and dismissed the director. Unfortunately, his replacement had a reputation of being a tyrant."

Elsewhere, it is the director himself - Father Joseph Allard - who in the early 20s, had to resign because of a nervous breakdown. Living conditions, both for the students and the staff were simply unsustainable.

In 1890, the Sisters of Saint Anne temporarily left the school in Kamloops following a dispute with the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate.

Finally in the early part of 20th century Anglican women who had extensive training in teaching, nursing and theology (one of whom was a graduate of Oxford!) staffed certain schools.

In an another article, Jacques Laliberté, Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, agreed to answer - to the best of his knowledge - issues concerning his community's involvement with the residential schools.


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