A moment of reckoning in Canada

Parliament Hill Monday, June 7th, 2021

There are times in our collective story when something really stops people in their tracks. The story of the 215 unmarked graves beside a residential school in Kamloops is one of these instances. Even though the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report has been out since 2015, it seems to take the pictures of 215 little pairs of shoes on Parliament Hill to bring all this home to us.

We have known about the appalling death count in residential schools since at least 1907. That year, Dr. Peter Henderson Bryce produced a report on the state of health in Canada’s residential schools. The conclusions of the report were astounding:

“It suffices for us to know, however, that of a total of 1,537 pupils reported upon nearly 25 per cent are dead, of one school with an absolutely accurate statement, 69 per cent of ex-pupils are dead, and that everywhere the almost invariable cause of death given is tuberculosis.”

The Bryce Report, 1907 p.18
One of the tables from the report. What is striking is that many schools did not report at all or said their records were incomplete, records that Archbishop Collins now says are available to all. The Bryce Report p. 18-19

Bryce focused on one particular school where the results were particularly heart wrenching:

Thus, of a total of 31 discharged from the File Hills school, 9 died at the school, of 6 others there is no record of condition on discharge, but all are reported to be dead, 7 others died from within a few months to three years after discharge and 9 are reported as in good health,

The Bryce Report, 1907 p. 18

The reason for this very high death rate was well understood. Scientific medicine had made great strides in the past 40 years and the health effects of good and proper ventilation were well understood. In many of the schools however, there was a criminal inattention to what was needed to keep kids well and protected. Bryce continues:

in the absence of regular and sufficient ventilation, extremely inadequate; that for at least 7 months in the long winter of the west, double sashes are on the windows in order to save fuel and maintain warmth and that for some 10 continuous hours children are confined in dormitories, the air of which, if pure to start with, has within 15 minutes become polluted, so as to be capable of detection by ordinary chemical tests. It is apparent that general ill health from the continued inspiration of an air of increasing foulness is inevitable; but when sometimes consumptive pupils and, very frequently, others with discharging scrofulous glands, are present to add an infective quality to the atmosphere, we have created a situation so dangerous to health that I was often surprised that the results were not even worse than they have been shown statistically to be.

The Bryce Report p. 19

The report goes on to talk about a general inadequate level of physical activity provided for the students and the absolute disregard for daily health and sanitation in the schools.

Such a report could have been a clarion call for action. These children were the responsibility of the state and it was clearly the state’s responsibility along with the various churches to make amends and vastly improve every aspect of the residential learning environment.

But here is where the story get sinister. Dr. Bryce reported to Duncan Campbell Scott, federal Deputy Superintendent of the Department of Indian Affairs and Scott suppressed the report. It was leaked to the media causing a public outcry, but very little was done to follow through on Bryce’s recommendations that included “the handing over of the school system to the Chief Medical Officer and be made in its first essentials a sanitorium system rather than an educational one: That each child must be primarily considered an “individual case of probably tuberculosis.”
That improvements be made in the buildings so that open air work-rooms and dormitories shall be provided.
That increased expenditure for extra clothing be provided for, also a special dietary. Also improved water
supply for bathing &.” Indian Residential Schools & Reconciliation

In fact, the report was seen as an irritation:

It will be obvious at once that Dr. Boyce’s recommendations while they may be scientific are quite inapplicable

to the system under which these schools are conducted. Even were the Department prepared to take the schools

over from the Churches, it is self evident that the Churches would not be willing to give up their share of the

joint control. These preliminary examinations by Dr. Lafferty and Dr. Bryce have already caused considerable

irritation and brought protests from the Roman Catholic authorities who have the larger number of pupils under

their charge

Department of Indian Affairs File 140,754-1 “Correspondence relating to tuberculous among the Indians in the various agencies across Canada 1908-1910” (c10167)

Daily Colonist November 16, 1907

Scott continued to block Bryce at every turn. In 1913, he denied him the funding he needed to continue his work. Bryce was not allowed to present his findings at conferences. He was denied positions in the Federal Public Service that he was certainly qualified and by 1921 he was forced into retirement (First Nations Child and Family Caring Society). All techniques used by large institutions that have no need for the truth.

But we still don’t seem to get it. Decades after the suppression of The Bryce Report by Duncan Campbell Scott and the Canadian Government, there is still no willingness to call the acts of our churches and governments genocide.

The interview with Rosemary Barton and Cardinal Collins is just a rehashing of past wrongs. Would Scott have said anything really different than the platitudes Collins offered this past Sunday?

Collins is a smooth operator and he brushed aside any thought that there are records that have yet to be disclosed, even as the head of the Oblate order, Rev. Ken Thorson, is in the process of digitizing the records from their Kamloops school (CBC, June 6, 2021).

It is the smug arrogance of church leaders like Collins that will really make the struggle for reconciliation so much harder. No need for apologies, no grand gestures, just a little bit of work here and there.

Full interview with Cardinal Collins

When the mighty fall, they fall hard. Trite statements and interviews by complacent, comfortable men do not help. Yesterday Egerton Ryerson’s statue in Toronto came tumbling down and it has been announced it will not be reinstated.

A photo of the Egerton Ryerson statue at Ryerson University in Toronto after being pulled to the ground. Credit: Global News. Global News

Ryerson was responsible for the early design of the residential school model in Canada. He believed that white and indigenous students should not be taught in the same schools due to their different cultural backgrounds. He was also responsible for developing the separate school system in Ontario – another outmoded idea that might also soon face the chopping block.

As we reexamine our history, who do we still honour? Who do we now comdemn?

All history is relative and the judgement of current times will have to be meted out on people like Scott, MacDonald and Ryerson. These are Canadian icons no more and they must all be toppled from their ridiculous pedestals so we can move on.

Looking Catholic Education in the Face in Ontario

why did this take so long?

I have been following an issue in Ontario education for over a year now. I have to say right at the start that I have been following this because of a very brave Catholic educator Paolo De Buono. He is brave in a way that I never was. I was a Catholic educator for 31 years. I sat on the governing board of the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace – the Canadian Catholic development organization – for 6 years. But in all that time, I never spoke truth to power like Paolo does. He is noble and brave, he is attacked for advocating for LGBTQ students in Catholic schools. He is in my opinion, a true Catholic educator.

I am writing now because I have followed Paolo’s tweets for a long time. In November of 2019, he started writing about an incredibly bizarre meeting of the Toronto Catholic School Board where one trustee, Michael Del Grande, in a motion to the board compared a variety of ghastly and illegal sexual practices to those of the LGBTQ community. The Board had been discussing changes to their code of conduct to include the terms gender expression and identity, a request made of all boards by the Ministry of Education to align with human rights legislation (Toronto Star, October 29, 2020).

For over a year, De Buono publicly advocated for LGBTQ students in Toronto Catholic schools against Del Grande. His tweets appeared daily, but it looked like the board and the Toronto Cardinal Collins just wanted him to go away.

Finally, after a report conducted by Michelle Bird of Rubin Thomlinson LLP, the board was obliged to deal with the incident. In the report, Del Grande was found to have violated the Trustee’s Code of Conduct:

She said “while Mr. Del Grande’s choice of words alone would be sufficient to find that he violated the Trustees’ Code of Conduct, I note that Mr. Del Grande’s actions are exacerbated by the fact that he chose to suggest that including criminals — such as cannibals and rapists — in the Code of Conduct was somehow similar to including members of the LGBTQ+ community … In choosing the words that he did, he created an unwelcoming and harmful environment for certain members of the Catholic school board community.”

Toronto Star, November 6, 2020

The problem with all this goes well beyond the trustee. To me, this looks like a systemic failure of the Toronto Catholic Board’s ability to protect the rights of minorities in their schools. After the report was completed, with everything that had happened, four trustees still supported Del Grande at an August meeting called to consider whether he had violated their own code of conduct.

Finally, on November 11, 2020, after what the Toronto Star called a “tense seven-hour meeting”, Del Grande was found in contempt of the code of conduct. He will be required to make a public apology, is barred from being elected to any representative position or role on the board for three months and will need to complete an equity training program within a month (Toronto Star, November 12, 2020).

But the story is far from over. A week after the November meeting, Cardinal Collins, head of the Archdiocese of Toronto publicly criticized trustees for stopping a meeting delegate from reciting from the Roman Catholic Catechism, specifically the sections on chastity and homosexuality that characterizes homosexual acts as acts of ‘grave depravity’ that are ‘are intrinsically disordered’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Article 6).

Who is Cardinal Collins advocating for?

This would have been a great opportunity for the Cardinal to applaud the work of the trustees who did sanction Del Grande. An even better time to demand an apology from Del Grande, instead, he sided with those at the meeting who defended the trustee. This shows an incredible lack of leadership by a Cardinal and shows how out of touch Cardinal Collins is with mainstream society.

In a great article by Rev. Michael Coren, Debate about Toronto Catholic District School Board is overdue, Coren rightly, in my opinion, challenges the Cardinal and others who ” judge, are legalistic, and ignore the central call to love.”  The Catholic hierarchy is clearly in favour of those like Collins and Del Grande do not want to grant equal rights to LGBTQ students as they are obliged to do according to Ontario human rights legislation.

The point is you can’t have it both ways. You can’t take money from Ontario taxpayers and at the same time say that you don’t have to follow the rules and social norms of that society. You cannot exclude some because you are not comfortable with them, not in a democratic society.

This leads inevitably to the question – again – why are we still funding school systems that think it is ok to discriminate because of a set of beliefs most Catholics do not even agree with? I was a Catholic educator for 31 years, and I was mostly happy working for Catholic institutions. However, this has to stop, we are long past the time where the Catholic minority in Ontario needs special constitutional protection.

Reverend Coren says it best:

The truth is that many if not most Catholic schools are progressive and inclusive in their teaching, with teachers more concerned with the well-being of their students than some of the harsher beliefs of their faith. But there are still school trips to anti-abortion events, cases of LGBTQ students feeling isolated and insecure, and genuine questions about duplication of spending and the need for a separate, Catholic system in the modern age — especially as other religions do not receive the same privilege.

Cardinal Collins’ letter may have the opposite of its intention, but perhaps an open and informed debate is long overdue. Just don’t expect Jesus to attend the meeting.

Toronto Star, November 23, 2020

It is a good thing that we have educators like Paolo De Buono taking a public stand. There are very serious problems however with a system that has such difficulty sanctioning outright discrimination. A democratic society is sustained by its public institutions. When one of those institutions fails in its public mission it is time for that informed debate. This would the sign of a society ready and willing to look at itself and contemplate some important changes.

Time to start this now.