The German pastor, theologian, and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, is reported to have said: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”
From the middle of the 1930s, Bonhoeffer was trying to wake the German Lutheran Church to the impending crisis that eventually resulted in the Holocaust. In fact, he spent his last couple of years trying to bring the German church to oppose the genocide. Bonhoeffer was hung by the Nazis about a month before the war ended.
Is Bonhoeffer’s warning relevant to Canada?
Many Canadians seem to believe that employees of the churches that managed most of the Indian Residential Schools (IRS) engaged in genocide against Indigenous children.
The Chief Commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), Justice Murray Sinclair, told Matt Galloway on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) radio program The Current that between 15,000 and 25,000 Indigenous children are missing from these schools. In Justice Sinclair’s mind, a genocide had taken place.
Even more damning, the House of Commons, including members of all political parties, passed a motion by NDP MP Leah Gazan that claimed that the IRS system was a genocide against Indigenous children.
No evidence was presented, but the motion passed unanimously without debate.
To date, there has been no forensic evidence that Indigenous children were murdered and their bodies unceremonially buried in unmarked graves in schoolyards.
There are no references to genocide in the TRC Report, and there are no verified reports of parents asking about their children who went to school and never returned home. Also, there are no reports of missing children from school inspectors, optometrists, medical doctors, dentists, social workers, Indian agents, Chiefs, or Band Councilors, all of whom regularly visited residential schools.
Surprisingly, the churches that managed residential schools — Roman Catholic, Anglican, United Church, Mennonite, and Baptist — have remained silent, neither responding to these accusations nor defending their employees.
What should the churches do besides repent?
First, they should acknowledge that they have not supported their non-Indigenous and Indigenous employees, many of whom dedicated their lives to working in residential schools.
Second, the churches should say that they will no longer remain silent when they hear unsubstantiated claims accusing their employees of murdering and burying Indigenous children in unmarked graves.
Third, the churches should remind Canadians that our justice system assumes people are innocent until proven guilty. Without providing reliable evidence, it is unjust for government officials, Indigenous leaders, TRC Commissioners, and Members of Parliament to claim that church employees murdered Indigenous children and buried their bodies in schoolyards.
Fourth, the churches should invite IRS employees — the few who are still alive — to tell their stories for both their parishioners and other Canadians. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report, in fact, recommends that the churches that manage these schools educate their parishioners about their work in residential schools (see Call to Action 59).
Finally, the churches should call for fair and rigorous forensic investigations of all the sites where Indigenous children are reported to have been buried. An independent agency with the requisite technical expertise must do this work. A reliable investigation cannot be done by either the churches or the Indigenous bands because they have a partisan stake in the findings. As well, the churches must ensure that the evidence is published for all Canadians to know.
Indeed, the time is overdue for Canadian churches to carry out what the German Lutheran Church in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s time did not do: speak out against the injustice that is being directed at them and their parishioners.
The truth will set both the churches and Canadian society free.
Rodney A. Clifton is a professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba and a Senior Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. He lived for four months in Old Sun, the Anglican Residential School on the Blackfoot (Siksika) First Nation, and was the Senior Boys’ Supervisor in Stringer Hall, the Anglican residence in Inuvik. Rodney Clifton and Mark DeWolf are the editors of From Truth Comes Reconciliation: An Assessment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report (Frontier Centre for Public Policy, 2021). A second and expanded edition of this book will be published in early 2024.