Of Devils and Advocates: The Meaning of Native Graves

Since the end of May, Canada has been rocked by the discovery of unmarked graves associated with the government’s notorious Canadian Indian residential school system. At the time of this writing, five major sites have been located, with an estimated total of around 1,400 graves. Other sites are being investigated, and none of the investigations are complete. These findings have reminded many Canadians of the still-open wounds left by Canada’s treatment of its First Nations and other native peoples, and have caused deep national introspection. They have also occasioned violent backlash and vigilante retribution, with at least nine churches set on fire, many others vandalized, and statues of Queens Victoria and Elizabeth II toppled.

The national mood is tense. Still, it would not be quite correct to call it “polarized.” The state of Canadian opinion, certainly that of academics, elite political and media personalities, and perhaps even the majority of voters, is that of self-condemnation. Canada is a holocaust nation, many say. Douglas Farrow has summarized this well in the opening paragraphs of a recent essay in First Things. Given this moment’s imbalance and intensity, it is perhaps unsurprising that conservatives and champions of a more traditional sort of Christianity have become defensive, as Farrow himself is.

But it would be a mistake to treat the realities of Canada’s residential school system as simply the latest round of the culture war. The evils perpetrated against the First Nations highlight long-standing problems in both religious and political enterprises, and faithful Christians should want nothing less than to know the truth so that they can make any necessary corrections. This is true even for—or should I say especially for—Christians who wish to recover older traditions and embody their best virtues. Retrieval is neither repristination nor reaction. Indeed, for magisterial Protestants, it is always Reformation.

Yet if we are to draw the right lessons from this, we should establish the facts, since no small amount of media coverage has leapt to conclusions which we are not yet in a position to make.

The discovery of undocumented graves does not come as a surprise. Vol. 4 of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Report, written in 2015, explained that many native children were buried in such a fashion. These recent findings are part of a process of ongoing discovery. At the same time, the current findings are preliminary, and we do not actually know who is buried in these latest graves, nor the occasions of their death. The leadership of one of the First Nations involved has issued a statement explaining that “the history of this area is a complex one. The cemetery was established around 1865 for settlers to the region. In 1874, the St. Eugene Hospital was built near the St. Mary River and many of the graves in the ʔaq̓am cemetery are those who passed away in the hospital from within the Cranbrook region during this timeframe.” Similar qualifications have been made by other First Nations representatives. Thus, we do not actually have enough information yet to draw major conclusions from these discoveries. We know they are neither “mass graves” nor evidence for a program of systematic murder on the part of the schools, churches, or Canadian government; but we can also know that what they do represent, the residential school system’s culpable negligence, is indefensible. Christians who seek to defend it are not only defending evil, but defending an evil that has been condemned by historic Christianity, and especially Protestantism, since its inception and throughout the entirety of its history.

There is a substantial body of scholarship available on the Canadian residential school system as a whole, and its basic features are not in doubt.[1] There is no need to build one’s bunker behind accusations of media hype, social justice hysteria, or naïve anachronism. Sincerely interested parties can find the right literature. We can know what we need to know.

Some of the schools in question predated the confederation of Canada’s original provinces. Almost every school was initially founded by a religious order for religious purposes. However, they all eventually formally partnered with the Canadian government and were instruments of its official “Indian policies,” particularly their goal to “Canadianize” children. The idea was to give the children a new philosophy, a new moral code, new skills—a new culture—so that they could more successfully participate in Canada’s emerging economy. The churches were hardly unwitting victims in this. Rather, as John S. Milloy chronicles, many of their leaders shared the goal of “civilizing” the native students and agreed with the policy of family separation. He writes, “Father Lacombe opposed both holidays and visits from parents ‘because their intercourse and influence demoralize the pupils very much.’”[2] David Nock offers a more detailed description:

“The missionary was not just an apostle of Christ, but a government-supported civil servant who directed or forced the ignoble into accepting the Anglo-Canadian civilization. The fate or role of the Indian ideally (although not so often in fact) was to become a Christian, British-oriented, proletarian who would work for other people either as a tradesman, unskilled worker, farmhand or as a domestic servant.“[3]

The evangelistic goal and the nationalist goal were intertwined at this period of history, leading to the destruction not only of indigenous cultures and communities, but indigenous natural families. This is a hard truth that Christians must squarely face.

What of the deaths? Milloy is clear that they were not intentional killings, much less systematic murders. The overwhelming cause was tuberculosis, a verdict shared by Peter Bryce writing nearly a century earlier. However, this does not exculpate the schools or those who ran them. The schools were unable to provide healthy living conditions which would prevent or slow the spread of tuberculosis, and they had no adequate admissions policies that would screen out already-infected children. Bryce sounded precisely this alarm and was ignored. Milloy points out that the school’s funding source likely contributed to the negligence. They were paid on a per capita basis, thus incentivizing them to maximize enrollment in the name of survival. It frequently had the opposite effect on their pupils.

Pulling all of this together, we can conclude that some of the media coverage has, at the very least, jumped to conclusions which, as of yet, cannot be evidenced. Yet this is, in the end, not the main story at all. The evidence we do have reveals a jointly religious and political school system which was centered around a policy of family separation in the name of cultural assimilation. It failed to provide safe and healthy living conditions for its students, who were, in a program of cultural destruction, taken from their families, compelled to attend, and rarely allowed to leave. This is a true national crime, and there is no reason to attempt to defend the indefensible, nor to shift the blame to only one partner among the authorities and jurisdictions, whether secular or spiritual.

And yet a particularly egregious attempt at defending the tradition has recently been made by certain Roman Catholics, arguing that no matter the mistakes or crimes in the residential school system, it was “worth it” because these evils were done in pursuit of the highest good: the salvation of the children’s souls and those of their descendants.

However, this argument fails on numerous levels. Joshua Polanski has demonstrated that it runs contrary to Roman Catholic moral teaching, directing us even to Thomas Aquinas, who states flatly, “neither should anyone infringe the order of the natural law, in virtue of which a child is under the care of its father, in order to rescue it from the danger of eternal death.” We can find this argument echoed by Herman Bavinck, a modern Protestant, who argued against taking children out of their families to educate them: “no other institution, whether through the efforts of particular individuals or societies, established through the church or through the state, can replace or compensate for the family.”[4]

Even more basically, the argument that religious motivations justify false teaching or false practice is contradicted by the words of Christ. Jesus himself condemned Pharisaical missionary endeavors: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves” (Matt. 23:15). It is entirely possible for religious-minded people to cause others to stumble. And if they do so unto children… (Matt. 18:6)

In short, there is no Christian defense for forced family separation and negligent “care” of children.

Indeed, we must draw different lessons from this shameful episode. We should see that the church operating as a department of the modern state, especially as a sort of “family services” or “homeland security” outpost, poses huge liabilities. Further, we should resist any policy which presumes that bureaucratic agencies are more capable of raising children than the natural family.

Christians should also reject any claim that evangelism requires a particular cultural uniformity. As the second-century Epistle to Diognetus puts it, Christians may live in “Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and [follow] the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct.”[5] Or in the words of the Apostle Paul, “to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win …to those who are without law, as without law that I might win those who are without law… I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some” (1 Cor. 9:20-22). One wonders what the church in Canada might look like today had it not forced the natives to Canadianize. As it stands, 59% of Canadians identify as Christian, but less than 13% attend a church on a weekly basis. Roughly half of those identifying as Catholic or Mainline Protestant never attend.

Worth it?

Finally, we should learn not to treat the great sins of history simply as political volleys. Yes, there is plenty of spin and much fake news to be found. But only a fool or a conman believes that this is all there is to be found. Rather than devils, let us find advocates, those who tell the truth, those who defend the poor, and those who intercede for us before the face of God.


  1. The complete Truth and Reconciliation Reports are available online, though their length will surely scare away the ordinary reader. One summary can be found here. Peter Bryce’s important writings from the turn of the 20th century can be read, as well. Perhaps the authoritative scholarly treatment, John S. Milloy’s A National Crime, is also readily available.
  2. Milloy, A National Crime, ch. 3.
  3. David Nock, A Victorian Missionary and Canadian Indian Policy, 70-71.
  4. Bavinck, The Christian Family, 93, emphasis mine.
  5. Epst. Diognetus ch. 5.

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