Canada’s Shame

By Dr. Michael W. Higgins, President and Vice-Chancellor of Corpus Christi-St. Mark's at UBC

Special to The Tablet

This week's blog specifically deals with our current national uproar and reflects my personal opinion/analysis as a Catholic writer and scholar. Because of the moral urgency of the issue, I have interrupted the series of blog entries on the synods but will return to the subject next week. –Michael

The discovery of unidentified Indigenous children’s remains in the grounds of a Catholic-run boarding school has further damaged the withering moral authority of the Church in Canada. Pope Francis has turned to its senior cardinal for advice on how to respond.

When Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, looks out from his curial residence in a westerly direction, he must wonder what he would be doing were he still Primate of the Church in Canada and Archbishop of Québec City. And he must breathe an immense sigh of relief that that is no longer the case.

This past week has seen a scandal of demoralising proportions unfold with relentless speed. In fact, it is the greatest moral challenge the Church in Canada is facing as it struggles to retain its dwindling credibility. The trigger for national outrage, shame and remorse was the discovery of 215 unidentified children’s remains in the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia. This experience in national shock is not dissimilar to the roiling waves of despair and fury that followed the disclosure of the children’s remains in Tuam, Ireland, on the site of its home for unwed mothers.

But if Ouellet felt relief in being absent from his native Canada, it was short-lived. He was summoned to a discussion with Pope Francis last Saturday, 5 June, the same day that the Pope was also meeting that other Canadian cardinal resident in Rome, the Jesuit Michael Czerny, to try and fathom some of the multifaceted dimensions of the crisis unfolding in Canada and to work out a strategy of response.

In his Sunday Angelus locution, Francis addressed the pain associated with the palpable and perduring suffering of the Indigenous peoples of Canada but he did not offer the kind of formal apology that the majority of Canadians – Catholics especially – are clamouring for.


There have, as it happens, been many apologies offered by the Catholic entities, as they are legally called, that ran the residential schools on behalf of the government. The Oblates of Mary Immaculate and the Sisters of St Ann – the premier orders associated with the schools – have offered apologies and some, the Jesuits in particular, have been exceptional in working on a legal and moral relationship of restitution that has taken seriously the imperatives of meaningful reconciliation. But the rebuilding of trust is taking a long time, the government has often been dilatory in meeting its obligations, and the diocesan bishops – with outstanding exceptions like Michael Miller, Archbishop of Vancouver and Don Bolen, Archbishop of Regina – have taken a predominantly legal approach to the matter, more concerned with vicarious liability than prophetic witness.

Things on Turtle Island are not going well. The Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, who self- identifies as a Catholic, has called on fellow Catholics to besiege their parish priests, bishops and cardinals with calls for repentance, reparation and, more boldly still, the intervention of Pope Francis himself, on site preferably, delivering a formal apology to the Indigenous peoples for the Church’s participation in the management of the residential schools. This has been in the winds since the publication of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report in 2015 with its 94 recommendations, one of which explicitly calls on the Pontiff to make a formal apology. Cardinal Thomas Collins, Archbishop of Toronto, hit back in an interview on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation when he accused Trudeau of being unfair and uninformed.

There is a long and tortured history around these schools. They were established in the nineteenth century as a way of enculturating Indigenous children into the dominant society. It was a protracted, deliberate and sustained exercise in “cultural genocide”, perceived by many Canadians as preferable to the American mode of operating: send in the cavalry for yet another massacre. But the result is the same: the decimation of First Nations’ historical identity, the elimination of their languages, the suppression of their culture and spirituality, their complete marginalisation in the economic-political orbit. They have become aliens in their own land.

The Catholic Church ran – commissioned to do so by the federal government along with other churches (Anglican, United Church and Presbyterian) – the lion’s share of the residential schools, the total number of which under the Residential School Settlement Agreement consisted of 139 schools in operation from the 1870s with the final one closing in the 1990s. The public outcry in Canada this week is qualitatively different from the past. It is a threshold moment in terms of the conscience of the nation and a huge challenge to the withering moral authority of the Church. Although Ouellet is not in town for this historic upheaval and bears no immediate responsibility for oversight for the residential schools – only 10 of which were in Québec – he cannot be unaware of the turmoil.


This is only one of several disturbances on the political and ecclesial landscape, the most important of which is the infamous Bill 21, provincial legislation that has survived largely intact its legal challenge in the Court of Appeal. Bill 21 was introduced by the current party in power – the Coalition Avenir Québec – with the express intention of securing further in the social fabric of Québec the doctrine of laïcité, the strict separation of Church from state as discrete non-intermingling spheres first introduced in France in 1905. No political jurisdiction in all of North America has been more occupied with the challenges posed by religious and cultural accommodation than Québec. Bill 21 strengthens the hold of laïcité: all civil employees are forbidden to wear any religious article in the performance of their duties – kippa, hijab, burka, turban, crucifix, etc. – as they are seen as potentially divisive and in violation of the separation of the two spheres.

When the bill was first introduced, the Catholic Church expressed its opposition, seeing it as a violation of the Charter of Rights and as specifically targeting the Islamic community – which, in fact, was the primary if unacknowledged driver of the bill’s legislation – but it has been tepid in decrying the government’s initiative, which is manifestly popular in rural Québec, the one remaining region in Canada where there is demonstrable Catholic piety.

When Ouellet was archbishop, he tried to reawaken the province’s urban residual religiosity, convoking a Eucharistic Congress, assailing all the markers of secularism, trying to rally his fellow bishops to the cause of the restoration of the religious genius of this daughter of the “eldest daughter of the Church”, as the Church in France has been called. But it didn’t work.


Ouellet was born on 8 June 1944 in La Motte, Québec, into a Catholic family he has described as “religious but not very devout”. The Church of his youth, in which he was formed and in which he was ordained in 1968, was in an accelerated momentum to catch up with the post-1789 mother country. Within two years of ordination, he was teaching at the major seminary in Bogotá, and in 1972 he became a member of the Sulpicians, an order specifically dedicated to the training of priests. Although at the time of his own priestly training he had been living through the convulsive social and ecclesial changes that began just before the Second Vatican Council, by temperament and intellectual disposition he would have been inoculated to the encroaching threats to Québec’s Catholic hegemony. Colombia offered him a safe, familiar and traditional environment.

When he returned to Canada in 2002 after being appointed Archbishop of Québec and Primate of Canada by Pope John Paul II, the atmosphere – political and religious – was even more distant from his youthful memories. It was a world utterly changed. Ouellet and Québec were a misalliance. Enter Benedict XVI. In 2010, Benedict brought him to Rome, making him prefect of the Congregation for Bishops following the retirement of Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re: a position he has adroitly managed during two pontificates, with one pope prioritising ortho- doxy and compliance in his choice of bishops and the other giving precedence to that special pastoral gift Francis calls the “smell of the sheep”. He has not been disloyal to either boss, though his ecclesiological instincts and clerical sensibility position him more comfortably in the Ratzinger antechamber.


The Senior of the Canadian eminences – Collins of Toronto, LaCroix of Québec City, and Czerny in Rome handling the “Migrants” file at the Vatican – are his juniors. At 76, Ouellet is now past retirement age, his service possibly soon to be terminated, but for some cardinal-electors still papabile. Amiable, a gifted linguist, like Francis from the Americas, an organic conservative but not an obscurantist, neither a core sympathiser with the Bergoglio style nor in any way a detractor, Ouellet is in a waiting pattern.

Hard to imagine that, in the current maelstrom, where he would prefer to land is not back home. And who could blame him.

This content is published with the permission of The Tablet and appeared in the June 12, 2021 issue.


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