Blackening the entire history of the Christian residential school system in Canada, all that it taught and all who taught in it, seems to be quite acceptable in Canada today.
Two years ago, I visited St. Josephs Mission at Williams Lake. There, Bishop Hubert OConnor had been principal of the residential school; there, he had committed the sex crimes for which he was sentenced Friday to 2 1/2 years in prison.
I was in Williams Lake to research a magazine article on the prosecution of the bishop. I talked to many people, mainly native Indians. And I walked among the ruins of the schools empty classrooms, smashed windows and wind-swept, sodden floors.
In a wrecked classroom I found a printed collection of stories by the boys and girls of Grades 7 and 8 at the mission. Its entitled My Heart is Glad, a title repeated in the Shuswap, Chilcotin and Carrier languages. The stories were written from 1964 to 1966; OConnors years as principal.
While researching my story, I had been repeatedly told that virtually all references to native Indian customs, myths, sacred stories and legends were absolutely forbidden in this residential school. Yet this book is filled with Indian legends, crafts, myths, stories of the reserve, families, old tribal battles and folk lore, all written by the children. Here are a few of the headings atop the stories: Drying Fish; Notes on Some Ancient Indian Wars; Indian Paintings; The Sea Monster.
I was also told that many of the priests were bullies; some of them probably were. But taking me aside privately on the reserves, native Indians told me with love and laughter about Father Jack Hennessy at Red Stone and Father Paddy Collins arriving on his sleigh in the dead of winter with an old buffalo coat wrapped around him. And then there were the Dunlop brothers, Fathers Bert and Gerry, and Father Alex Morris and Bishop Fergus OGrady. And more recently Fathers John Brioux and Gerry Guilet...the names rolled off in warm remembrance and sometimes hoots of laughter.
What was the trial of Bishop Hubert OConnor all about? Rape? Yes, absolutely. Rape of a powerless woman whose life has been marred by it.
Rape was only one part of it, however. There was more to it than that.
This was a showcase trial, one that touched on every politically correct issue currently at the top of the hit list native spirituality, feminism, child abuse, language rights. You name it, the OConnor trial had it. As such, it provided the perfect venue for a government establishment avid to display its sensitivities.
When the first trial ended with all charges stayed because the Crown had failed to make full disclosure, there was virtually no chance the matter would end there. If the defendant had been Mr. Nobody, it might have. Staying charges is not a rarity.
Hub OConnor was no Mr. Nobody. He was a prelate of the Roman Catholic Church, the very institution labelled by the politically powerful chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Ovide Mercredi, as a mainstay of cultural genocide.
OConnor himself didnt help. Demeanor counts in court, and the bishop rode that first hearings full of an officious piety and stuffy arrogance that left spectators reeling.
Within two days the B.C. attorney-generals department had appointed a Victoria lawyer to look into a possible appeal.
There was another reason besides OConnors position and affiliation.
It was important that the government make native people feel supported. The fact that billion-dollar land negotiations were rolling down the road into the lap of the legislators was also no small matter.
When OConnor was retried, he was found guilty. There was public recognition of an individual crime and the (hopefully healing) vengeance of a woman whose life was ruined. Yesterday he was sentenced.
The trial raised widespread sympathy for the victim, and undoubtedly helped some whites understand for the first time the extent of the wounds inflicted on natives by the loss of their cultural heritage.
So it might seem inappropriate to now remind ourselves as the battered My Heart is Glad surely directs us to do that the dividing line between right and wrong, between memory and fact, between motive and means, between truth and lies, is not always where it should be.
Political correctness, I realized during my research, is as rampant on the reserves as in white society. The subjects might be different, but the cost for being fully human and fair can be high. No native seemed free to say that many reserves in old times were places of alcoholism, violence, rape and incest. You can only say that, this being the case, it was all caused by the loss of the indigenous culture. No one seemed free to admit publicly that, despite the harshness of residential schools, it wasnt all hell. All authority wasnt cruel, all meals werent slop, all nuns werent sadists, all skills learned werent useless, all damage done wasnt lasting.
None of this denies OConnors crime of rape or mitigates the justice of the sentence. None of it defends the residential school system and its abuses. Im simply saying that few things are all black or all white, and the way to correct one injustice is not to substitute it with another.
The right to say loudly and clearly whats on your mind has always been part of Canadian life. In this, the age of ultimate freedom, its ironic that for native Indian and white alike this freedom cannot be exercised because of the illusion that the distortions, myths and lies of political correctness will somehow create a greater good.
Lisa Hobbs Birnie, How the Bishop's Scandal Blights True Remembrance, Vancouver Sun (British Columbia), September 14, 1996.
Reprinted by permission of the author.
Lisa Hobbs Birnie is a Bowen Island B.C. journalist and author. Her most recent book is, Western Lights: Fourteen Distinctive British Columbians.Copyright © 1996 Vancouver Sun
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