Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in the B.C. Catholic on Aug. 17, 2023, and is reprinted here with permission.
As he lay in an Alberta hospital bed in late July, retired Calgary Bishop Fred Henry summoned the energy to publicly break the silence regarding what he considers the prevailing “lie” about missing Indian residential schoolchildren in Canada.
“Why is the Catholic Church not asking the federal government for proof that even one residential child is actually missing in the sense that his [or] her parents didn’t know what happened to their child at the time of the child’s death?” he demanded in an email to Toronto’s Catholic Register.
The query was posed to both the Catholic Register and a former Catholic Register columnist who has challenged political accounts of Indian residential school history. Bishop Henry apparently went to Catholic media because he has not yet received a response to an initial group email he sent to his brother bishops six weeks ago.
On June 26, using the subject line “Lockjaw,” Bishop Henry asked the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops to publicly and formally reject the interim report of the federal justice minister’s special adviser on missing children and unmarked graves associated with Indian residential schools.
As part of her report, special interlocutor Kimberly Murray recommended creating the criminal offense of “denialism” that could be applied to those who dispute Indigenous accounts related to residential schools. Then Justice Minister David Lametti indicated he was amenable to drafting such legislation. In his June email to the bishops, Bishop Henry compared the CCCB’s nonresponse to an ostrich with its head in the sand and its tail in the air.
“I have not had any response from the powers that be,” he told the Catholic Register in a subsequent email.
“Why is the Catholic Church not asking the federal government for proof that even one residential school child is actually missing?”
In response to an inquiry from the Catholic Register, Archbishop Richard Smith of Edmonton and Archbishop Don Bolen of Regina, two of the Church’s leaders on the Indigenous file, said they are waiting for the final report from Murray before commenting on the special adviser’s work.
Yet even hospitalized at age 80, the retired bishop expressed a sense of urgency for having what he regards as the whole truth told about Indian residential school history. He does not dispute the need for reconciliation with Indigenous peoples but insists there must be boundaries and they must begin where the truth leaves off.
“It seems abundantly clear to me [to ask what follows] if the Catholic Church … allows the lie that there are thousands of missing residential schoolchildren to become embedded in stone? Obviously, [it means] these thousands of missing children were murdered by Catholic priests and nuns and clandestinely buried in unmarked graves. Is the Catholic Church prepared to go that far in the name of reconciliation?” he asked in the email sent to the Catholic Register.
Bishop Henry foresees precisely that outcome “rapidly happening” given recent reports from Parliament and an upcoming report to the U.N. in September by Special Rapporteur Francisco Cali Tzay, who visited Canada this spring but had no time to meet with the CCCB.
“Would it help Indigenous people across Canada to better their lives if the Catholic Church did go so far as to take responsibility for the murder and clandestine burial of thousands of residential schoolchildren in the name of reconciliation?” Bishop Henry asked. “No, it wouldn’t. It wouldn’t improve the lives of Indigenous people one iota if that monstrous libel against the Oblates, the Sisters of St. Ann, the Gray Nuns et al were to become the accepted ‘truth’ in Canada.”
In his email, the bishop, who served the Diocese of Calgary for almost 19 years and who has been a priest for 55 years, wonders whether his fellow clergy simply don’t see the implications of allowing the current narrative to stand.
“If so, it’s not because those pushing the genocide [of Indigenous people] narrative haven’t made it clear where things are headed. It’s not the federal government that’s going to be held responsible for Canada’s murder and clandestine burial of thousands of missing children. It’s the Catholic Church.”
Bishop Henry noted an additional confusing factor is his inability to get any kind of answer about the existential questions he’s been raising, especially given the “synodal listening process” the Church is undertaking.
“For some reason ‘they have eyes to see but refuse to see, ears to hear but refuse to listen,’” he wrote. “Their silence is doing irreparable harm to the Church that I love.”
Archbishops Smith and Bolen, however, counter that they do indeed have their listening ears open — they’re focused now on hearing the Indigenous side that has historically and tragically been ignored in Canada even by the Church.
“I would just say let the [special] interlocutor do her job,” Archbishop Smith said. “It is an interim report. What we’re focused on here at the archdiocese and across the country with the CCCB is working with her.
“We made a pledge long ago as bishops to make records available to look into the truth of things, and we are happy and very ready to help the Indigenous peoples tell their story. That is our focus right now. Let’s see this process finish. Once you have a finished process, you are in a better position to assess it overall and make whatever statements might be necessary.”
Archbishop Bolen stressed that impatience or urgency can’t be allowed to interfere with the complexity of Church-Indigenous history.
“The bishops, with the churches in Canada, are moving in the directions we have moved because we recognize, as Pope Francis has articulated, that the residential school system, as a system, was catastrophic for Indigenous people. It was an outcome of colonization. There is a rightful need to apologize, to engage in projects that support Indigenous language and culture — to learn a new way of walking together,” he said.
“Good that historians are asking questions, and good that we carry out that work as a society, which is part of the work of truth-telling. The bishops are rightfully focusing on the task of reconciliation, not so much on evaluating or analyzing a particular report,” Archbishop Bolen added.
Vancouver Archbishop J. Michael Miller agreed with the sentiments of Archbishops Smith and Bolen, saying it’s important to continue listening and working with Indigenous leaders while also encouraging the release of as much information as possible.
“In the Archdiocese of Vancouver, we have been working diligently to deepen relationships with Indigenous leaders in our region. This has resulted in meaningful collaboration on erecting memorials, healing programs, and even investigations of former residential school sites.”
He also hopes the special interlocutor’s final report will shed more light “regarding any known missing former residential school students,” he said. “Indigenous people deserve all of the information any governmental or Catholic entity has available. The work of reconciliation is well underway, and we all have much to do in order to contribute to the healing and justice rightfully sought by our Indigenous brothers and sisters.”
Calgary’s former bishop is no stranger to challenging the accepted wisdom around Indian residential schools, nor is he a denier of the very real wrongs done to Indigenous people by the 19th- and mid-20th-century system. While still leading the diocese, he wrote a stinging 2016 letter to Carolyn Bennett, then federal minister of aboriginal affairs and northern development, taking factual issue with her public comments that placed full responsibility for the debacle on the Catholic Church.
Although Bishop Henry has been retired since 2017, he has been active behind the scenes in clerical circles almost since the reported “discovery” of graves in May 2021. He has been a champion of British Columbia independent researcher Nina Green, who through emails and on her website Indian Residential School Records meticulously challenges claims made by the more extreme Indigenous political voices, which are largely echoed unquestioned by mainstream media.
Itemizing steps that 50 Catholic entities took over the years to contribute financially to a settlement for survivors of residential schools, Bishop Henry acknowledged the “dismal failure” of the Moving Forward Campaign to meet its fundraising targets but insisted the leadership of the Church gave its best efforts to attain its goal.
“However, the Church’s moral obligations are being met on an almost daily basis. I wish I could say the same for the government and the legal system. I would strongly suggest you take the plank out of your own eye before you attempt to take the splinter out of anyone else’s,” he told Bennett.