Canada, like Australia, is taking steps to reconcile with Native Americans for programs to forcibly assimilate them as children in the early and mid 20th century. The programs removed children from their homes and sent them to state and parochial schools to be educated as children of European descent. They were given numbers, their names not recognized, and divested of their cultural traits. Abuse was rampant.

The article in question discusses the terms of reconciliation, not in terms of recognition of the children and compensation to them, but as part of a larger dialogue. Wisely, the government wishes to include those in the process of “civilizing” the Native Americans. However, one passage struck me as a little odd:

One of the largest shifts in attitude has come from Canada’s churches, which ran most of the schools and have since settled lawsuits for physical and sexual abuse.

“The ‘good guys,’ no matter how kindly or well intentioned, have to confront they were complicit in a system of evil,” said Jamie Scott, the United Church of Canada officer for residential schools.

The United Church was one of the first to withdraw from the schools, in 1969, and in 1986 was the first of the churches to apologize. Between 1991 and 1994, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate from the Catholic Church, the Anglican Church and the Presbyterian Church also issued apologies. They have agreed to participate and donate to the commission. Scott said staff members have their own tales to tell.

“Many of the people who worked in those schools never beat a kid,” he said. “They saw themselves called to help people they saw as marginalized. They have a side of the story too.”

I’m not surprised that churches would be first to apologize, or that their apologies would seem incomplete after other authorities took more radical steps. In other contexts, the Catholic Church, for instance, has been quick to respond to its ethical shortfalls, but slow to expand on them. Those last sentences, though, characterize the churches involvement in national policy as social work. “Not knowing any better” has served as a partial excuse of some kind or other for some time. But I think there is an attempt to protect the agency of religious institutions in social work, their methods. Inserting their voices into the record, supporting the process of reconciliation so fully, attempts to draw a distinction between the intentions of the churches, their practices and the goals of the government’s assimilation policies.

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