Faithful to the mandate of her divine Master to “go into the whole world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mk 16:15), the Catholic Church, since her foundation, has carried out a great missionary work, through which she has brought to the world, not only the faith, but civilisation — sanctifying places, peoples, institutions and customs. Thanks to this work, the Church has also civilised the peoples of the two Americas, immersed in paganism and barbarism.
In Canada, the first Jesuit mission among the Iroquois Indians, headed by Fr Charles Lallemant (1587–1674), landed in Quebec in 1625. A new mission arrived in 1632, led by Fr Paul Le Jeune (1591–1664). Fr Jean de Brébeuf (1593–1649) returned in 1633 with two other priests. From longhouse to longhouse, they began to teach catechism to children and adults. But some witch doctors convinced the Indians that the presence of the Fathers was causing drought, epidemics and every other misfortune. The Jesuits then decided to protect the catechumens by isolating them in Christian villages, the first of which was built four miles from Quebec with houses, a fort, a chapel, a hospital and a residence for the Fathers.
At the same time, some volunteers offered to convert the Indians: St Marie of the Incarnation (Marie Guyart-Martin, 1599–1672), an Ursuline from Tours who, with two other nuns, had founded a boarding house in Quebec for the education of Indian children; Marie-Madeleine de la Peltrie (1603–1671), a French widow who, with some hospital sisters from Dieppe, had set up a hospital, also in Québec; the members of the Society of Our Lady who, in 1642, with the help of the Sulpician priest Jean-Jacques Olier (1608–1657) and the Company of the Most Holy Sacrament, built Ville Marie, which would later become the city of Montreal.
The Iroquois Indians, however, proved inflexibly hostile. They had horribly mutilated Fr Isaac Jogues (1607–1646) and his assistant René Goupil (1608–1642) by pouring burning coals on them. In March of 1649, the Iroquois martyred Fr Jean de Brébeuf and Fr Gabriel Lalemant (1610–1649). Fr de Brébeuf was pierced with red-hot rods and the Iroquois tore off pieces of his flesh, devouring them before his eyes. Since the martyr continued to praise God, they tore off his lips, cut out his tongue and put burning embers down his throat. Fr Lalemant was tortured next, with even greater ferocity. Then a savage smashed his head with his axe and tore out his heart, drinking the blood in order to absorb his strength and courage. In December, another wave of hatred made two new martyrs: Fr Charles Garnier (1605–1649) and Fr Noël Chabanel (1613–1649). The eight Jesuit missionaries, known as “the Canadian martyrs”, were proclaimed blessed by Pope Benedict XV in 1925 and canonised by Pope Pius XI in 1930.
These episodes are part of Canada’s historical memory and cannot be forgotten. Pope Francis, as a Jesuit, should know this epic, whose narrators include his confrère Fr Celestino Testore in the book I santi martiri canadesi, released in 1941 and republished in Italy by Chirico in 2007.
But above all, the Holy Father should have exercised greater prudence in the “case” of the alleged discovery of mass graves in the Indian residential schools, a network of boarding schools for the indigenous people of Canada, founded by the government and entrusted mainly to the Catholic Church but also in part to the Anglican Church of Canada (30%), with the idea of integrating young people into the culture of the country, according to the Gradual Civilisation Act approved by the Canadian Parliament in 1857. In recent decades, the Catholic Church has been accused of having participated in a plan for the cultural extermination of the aboriginal peoples, whose young people were allegedly kidnapped from their families, indoctrinated and sometimes subjected to abuse so that they could be “assimilated” by the dominant culture. In June of 2008, on “indigenist” grounds, the Canadian government made official apologies to the natives and set up a Commission de vérité et réconciliation (CVR) for the Indian residential schools.
The researchers of the commission, despite the 71 million dollars they received, worked for seven years without finding the time to consult the archives of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the religious order which began to manage the residential schools at the end of the nineteenth century. Based on these very archives, the historian Henri Goulet, in his Histoire des pensionnats indiens catholiques au Québec. Le rôle déterminant des pères oblats (Presses de l’Université de Montréal, 2016), showed that the Oblates were the only defenders of the traditional language and way of life of the Indians of Canada, unlike the government and the Anglican church, which insisted on a form of integration that uprooted the indigenous people from their origins. This historiographical tack finds confirmation in the works of one of the leading international scholars of Canadian religious history, Prof. Luca Codignola Bo of the University of Genoa.
Meanwhile, the accusation of “cultural genocide” has been turned into that of “physical genocide”. In May of 2021, the young anthropologist Sarah Beaulieu, after examining the land near the former residential school of Kamloops with ground-penetrating radar, launched the hypothesis of the existence of a mass grave, without ever having done even one excavation. The anthropologist’s statements — reported by the mainstream media and endorsed by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — have been spun into various narratives, some of which claim that “hundreds of children” were “killed” and “secretly buried” in “mass graves” or in irregular mounds on the grounds of “Catholic schools all over Canada”.
This “news” is simply devoid of any foundation, seeing that no bodies have ever been exhumed, as Vik van Brantegem documented on 22 February 2022 on his blog. On 1 April 2022, the UCCR blog presented a thoroughgoing interview with the historian Jacques Rouillard, professor emeritus of the faculty of history of the University of Montreal, who categorically denies the cultural and physical genocide of indigenous Canadians, repudiating the existence of mass graves at the residential schools, convinced that what is behind it all is only an effort to demand millions in compensation. On 11 January, the same Prof Rouillard published an extensive article on the Canadian portal Dorchester Review, stating that no child’s body has been found in the alleged mass graves, in clandestine burials or any other form of irregular burial at the Kamloops school. Behind the boarding schools are only ordinary cemeteries, where students of the school were buried, along with members of the local community and the missionaries themselves. According to the documents presented by Rouillard, 51 children died at that boarding school between 1915 and 1964. In the case of 35 of them, documents have been found establishing the cause of death, mainly illnesses and in some cases accidents. A new article by Professor Tom Flanagan and the magistrate Brian Gesbrecht, published under the title “The false narrative of the residential schools burials” on 1 March 2022 in the Dorchester Review, reiterates that there is no trace of a single student having been killed in the 113-year history of the Catholic residential schools. According to the very data furnished by the Commission de vérité et réconciliation, the mortality rate among young people attending residential schools was on average about 4 deaths per year for every 1,000 young people, and the main causes were tuberculosis and influenza.
It seems that excavations at Kamloops have finally been authorised, but as Prof Rouillard affirms, it would have been better if these had taken place last autumn, so as to learn the truth and keep Pope Francis from apologising on the basis of unproven hypotheses. These are the words of the Canadian academic:
“It is hard to believe that a preliminary search for an alleged cemetery or mass grave in an apple orchard on reserve land near the residential school of Kamloops could have led to such a spiral of claims endorsed by the Canadian government and repeated by mass media all over the world. It gives a terrible and simplistic impression of complex issues in Canadian history. The exhumations have not yet begun and no remains have obviously been found. Imaginary stories and emotion have outweighed the pursuit of truth. On the road to reconciliation, isn’t the best way to seek and tell the whole truth rather than deliberately create sensational myths?”