Catholics must enter the dialogue on residential schools – BC Catholic

As part of the Archdiocese of Vancouver’s Into the Deep lecture series, the Archbishop’s Delegate for Operations, James Borkowski, recently discussed reconciliation work with Indigenous peoples. He challenged Catholics to learn more about the history of residential schools and the deep flaws in the system and, with a new understanding, to grow in compassion and appreciate the sacrifices made by the early missionaries. Below is the introduction to his speech, slightly edited for clarity.

As you know, this is a risky subject, especially for Catholics. Some of today’s information might drive you crazy, might even make you want to throw things at me, so I’m so grateful we’re on Zoom. I am also grateful that so many of you care enough about this issue to take the time out of your busy schedules to participate. And a special welcome to all the indigenous peoples who join us tonight. We appreciate your presence here.

James Borkowski spoke on Indigenous reconciliation as part of the Archdiocese of Vancouver’s Into the Deep lecture series.

So let’s dive into the depths of this difficult problem.

As Catholics, we are committed to seeking the truth and sharing it in charity, and that is my main focus tonight. So we’re going to go over some information regarding the history of residential schools, then we can explore some of the trauma that Indigenous peoples have suffered, and then finally discuss opportunities for reconciliation.

Another goal for tonight is for us Catholics to work to deepen our empathy for Indigenous peoples while growing in respect for the Catholic missionaries who brought the faith to this region.

Why is it important to understand what went wrong in residential schools? Well, historically, when we misdiagnose a problem, our proposed solutions rarely work. So in that case, if we believe what we’ve heard, if the residential school tragedy was all about a good education system being ruined by bad priests and nuns murdering children, then we can all blame the Church . Simple and done.

However, if the problem is not that, if the residential school system itself was flawed in many ways, we need to reconsider the conclusions our culture has reached. And if we mishandle this tragedy, and not in a pastoral way, we run the risk of judging unfairly and even missing our opportunities to help.

James Borkowski displays two recommended books during his presentation. (Archdiocese of Vancouver Here is YouTube)

It’s easy right now to be paralyzed with fear and to be so scared that we’re not taking the risks we should be taking to truly connect with Indigenous communities. It’s also very easy to fall into the modern trap of giving yourself five minutes to decide who’s good and who’s bad in a question. So a lot of people these days – we pick sides, we share angry posts, and we feel good while accomplishing very little. And I really hope that as a religious community, we don’t let that happen.

I also want to acknowledge that I am not indigenous and do not claim to speak on behalf of indigenous peoples. I am part of a team that had the good fortune to meet with Indigenous leaders and Elders, as well as many residential school survivors, and I will share some of what we heard from them. But mostly I share the things we’ve learned, especially over the last five years or so.

The bottom line is I’m a Catholic with a message for Catholics, and I know identity politics is very common these days, but tonight I hope we can prove that all Catholics can and should know more on this issue if we want to move forward.

Several First Nations leaders, including Chief Phil Fontaine, have encouraged all of us to enter into dialogue, so I am doing that tonight. One of our tasks as Catholics is to sincerely hold Church leaders and the lay faithful accountable when their decisions result in the suffering of innocent people. But one of our jobs as Canadians is to hold government, corporations and our neighbors fairly accountable when their decisions cause innocent people to suffer. And in my opinion, it’s a both/and situation, and I think it’s a disservice to Indigenous peoples and Catholics when we oversimplify and misdirect anger and blame.

Some of tonight’s information comes from resources I’ll share with you throughout, and some comes from historians, researchers, and scientists we’ve collaborated with. Part of that also came from prayer. Some time ago, after reading inaccurate media reports, I remember saying to God – as if he needed to hear it from me – that most of what people are told is not is not true. And I feel like what he wants us to know is that even though the media reports are inaccurate, most of the hard truths about residential schools have not been told.

So prayer and research and lots of reading worked together to deepen my empathy and reduce my defensiveness. And before I dive into the story, I want to say that the response from the local church was generally well received by the First Nations peoples we spoke with. Bishop Michael’s apology and commitments, combined with your generosity and the goodwill of Indigenous peoples throughout this region, have positioned us to make real progress on the path to reconciliation.

So please visit our First Nations page at to learn more about this work and how you can play an important role in it.

Other excerpts from the presentation will appear in an upcoming issue.

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