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Historia Ecclesiastica

Servant to a Sorcerer

On Canada.


Pierre-Antoine Pastedechouan was once a Christian. In 1620, when he was still a young boy, he was sent from the New World by the Récollets to study in France, where he received a Catholic education and the sacraments of the Church. And after he returned six years later, he kept the faith, although he faced unrelenting pressure from his brother Carigonan, a prominent witch doctor among the Montagnais people, to abandon it. English privateers soon drove the French out of the country, and Pastedechouan’s only tangible bonds to his newfound faith were severed in an instant.

When the French returned in 1632, Pastedechouan entered the service of the newly dispatched Jesuits as a tutor in the Montagnais language. But he was a different man. The Jesuit superior of the province of New France, Father Le Jeune, soon found this when he encountered Pastedechouan, Carigonan, and Mestigoit, another brother caught between the two. Le Jeune described Pastedechouan as “an apostate, renegade, excommunicate, atheist, and servant to a Sorcerer.” After Easter the next year, Pastedechouan simply stopped teaching and left the French settlement to rejoin his pagan brothers. Le Jeune, undeterred, followed, and Mestigoit took him in. 

During Le Jeune’s stay, the Sorcerer (as the priest calls Carigonan in all his dispatches to France) took it upon himself to torment his European guest. Some of it was harmless enough. Carigonan taught the priest obscenities in the Montagnais language and goaded companions to mock his appearance. Other offenses were graver. He blasphemed against the God this stranger tried to tell him had created the whole world. In the harsh winter, he tried to take from the priest (and from others) what little food was allotted to them when a very real risk of starvation loomed. He was a fervent devoté of the old religion, and continued to observe the rituals to which he was accustomed. 

Le Jeune returned to his brother priests that spring disheartened by Pastedechouan’s fate. He had been given the best formation the Church could provide him and still, when he returned to the domain of a false religion and the sway of one of its priests, turned away. The Jesuit concluded, reasonably enough, that if the conversion of Canada’s native peoples were to succeed, it would require a complete transformation of their way of life. This is just the nature of conversion—no doubt when the Huguenot-born Le Jeune found his own way to the Church a similar transformation had been required. 

Le Jeune resolved that Catholic schools should be established in New France, capable not only of instructing children in the faith and other subjects, but of laying the foundation upon which they could build Christian lives. This included, among other things, abandoning the hunter-gatherer ways of their ancestors in favor of agriculture. Le Jeune worried that the former way required devoting so much time and energy to base sustenance that none was left for the pursuit of higher things. 

In 1635, he saw this vision realized with the establishment of a college under Father Antoine Daniel—later to die a martyr’s death—for both French and native boys. (Though the missionaries’ work would later be entangled by critics for his so-called “imperialism,” Le Jeune believed “that souls are all made of the same stock,” and that natives should receive the same Christian education given to Frenchmen.) Though its doors were closed after just five years, this early Jesuit school marks the beginning of a long, complicated history of Canadian-Indian Christian education. Two centuries later, the Canadian government, recognizing a shared interest, would partner with Catholics and other Christian groups to establish residential schools much like the one modeled by the early Jesuit missionaries. In more than a century of operation, roughly one hundred fifty thousand indigenous Canadians passed through dozens of such schools scattered throughout the country. 

In those many decades of operation, instances of grave abuse occurred. And the government’s consistent failure to provide the funding and support necessary for the proper operation of these schools led in many of the institutions to subpar facilities, inadequate supplies, understaffing, and many worse things. These very real concerns led in 2008 to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement between the government of Canada and the former students—now dubbed “survivors”—of the residential schools. Along with billions of dollars of direct payments to survivors, the I.R.S.S.A. earmarked sixty million dollars for the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission charged with documenting the history of the residential schools, with a particular focus on abuses and failures. What resulted after seven years of investigation is a bizarre and sprawling document, thousands of pages long, which illustrates quite clearly—if unintentionally—that the outrage directed at Canada’s Christian schools is mainly due to their religious character. 

Marie Wilson, the commissioner, makes this clear from the outset. In her introductory statement, she gladly reports that in recent years the pagan ceremonies formerly outlawed by Canada have been revived, “with an offering that there is no wrong way to pray.” The report then lays out the historical origins of the mission and residential schools of Canada, and finds that, in the commission’s view, there is actually one wrong way to pray. “The Roman Catholic Church, building on the traditions of the Roman Empire, conceived of itself as the guardian of a universal world order,” the report informs us. “The adoption of Christianity within the Roman Empire (which defined itself as ‘civilized’) reinforced the view that to be civilized was to be Christian.” This is true, and the Church’s claim to universality is what the commission finds reprehensible. 

The very idea that a religion could make unique and universal claims about truth and authority is treated as an absurdity. When giving background on the give-and-take between empire and mission, the commission report notes, “In 1433, Pope Eugene IV granted spiritual authority over a number of islands in the Madeira archipelago in southwest Portugal to the Portuguese Order of Christ, a religious and military body then led by Prince Henry of Portugal. In doing so, Eugene claimed an interest in seeking the salvation of all the people of the world.” It is from this, Eugene’s supposed error, that all the sins of empire and conquest proceed in the minds of the report’s authors. That Eugene naturally had “an interest in seeking the salvation of all the people of the world” does not seem to have occurred to anyone involved. 

Likewise, the authors are baffled by the fact that when King Louis XIII established the first trading company in Quebec in 1627, he assigned to it the paramount “purpose of attempting, with divine assistance, to bring the people who inhabit [the region] to the knowledge of the true God, to civilize them and to instruct them in the faith and Apostolic, Catholic, and Roman religion.” 

This evangelical zeal is glossed by the commissioners as follows: 

1) the Christian God had given the Christian nations the right to colonize the lands they “discovered” as long as they converted the Indigenous populations, and 2) the Europeans were bringing the benefits of civilization (a concept that was intertwined with Christianity) to the “heathen.” In short, it was contended that people were being colonized for their own benefit, either in this world or the next. 

The commission seems to oppose evangelism as a matter of principle. When Christian missionaries, strange men who took redundant “vows of charity, poverty, and obedience,” came to the lands of the Montagnais and their other pagan neighbors, the report claims that their first sin was to bother trying to share their religion in the first place, a religion that “came complete with new values and cultural practices.” This imposition extended fully into the educational realm, as the schools the missionaries operated had a defined purpose: the salvation of souls. Their education stressed “the doctrines of sin, salvation, and obedience, and it undermined the foundations of Aboriginal culture.” The report finds fault with all of this; it condemns the missionaries for claiming that they were in possession of an exclusive truth and that they “held that all other religions were either in error or sinful.” The possibility that the missionaries were correct is never considered. In fact, the opposite claim is asserted outright: 

There was no moral imperative to impose Christianity on the Indigenous peoples of the world, they did not need to be “civilized.” Indigenous peoples had systems that were complete unto themselves and met their needs. . . . Taken as a whole, the colonial process was justified on the sheer presumption of taking a specific set of European beliefs and values and proclaiming them to be universal values that could be imposed upon the peoples of the world. 

At one point, the report even cites approvingly the sacrilegious incantations of anti-imperial rebels elsewhere: “Slaves on the British island of Trinidad, in preparation for a revolt, sang that ‘the bread we eat is the white man’s flesh / the wine we drink is the white man’s blood.’” Yet for all these anti-Christian undertones, the report begrudgingly admits that over the years, the missionaries succeeded in gaining converts. An Indian Affairs census of 1899 reported that more than seventy thousand of the one hundred thousand First Nations people identified in the census were Christians. This is the good fruit of the first seventy years of residential schooling and the first quarter-millennium of the Christian mission in Canada.

A full accounting of the story, however, must address the aforementioned failures, including neglect and abuses terrible in their variety. Subpar facilities, inadequate medical care, and repeated outbreaks of tuberculosis and other factors led to a number of tragic deaths. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission investigated this, concluding in part: 

The report demonstrates that Aboriginal residential school students died at rates higher than non-Aboriginal students. It also demonstrates that the government failure to provide adequate funding, medical treatment, nutrition, housing, sanitation, and clothing contributed to this elevated death rate. In addition, the report makes it clear that the government had been advised of the implications of its policies and presented with options—which it chose to ignore—that would have reduced the school death rates. 

This is all true. It is also entirely disconnected from the fantastical narrative that was used to justify the burning of dozens of Canadian churches in the summer of 2021, and to smear the Church and demand that her clergy grovel and surrender massive sums of money to their control. These children were not murdered, as a great many anti-Catholic activists asserted last year. They were not victims of the Church; they were her charges, who were failed by an apathetic government. 

The deaths of residential school students ought to be considered in context. The report concluded that three thousand two hundred of the one hundred fifty thousand children who passed through the system had died. Any rate of child mortality is going to be too high, but slightly more than two percent is not exactly an outlandish average for poorly funded facilities in the rural reaches of Canada from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. 

The idea that any kind of mass killings were conducted at the residential schools, or that secret mass graves were discovered on the school sites after being kept hidden somehow for a hundred years or more, was never anything but slander, not supported even by an agenda-driven government report. Some schools had cemeteries on the grounds whose wooden crosses were wiped out by decades of Canadian weather and inattention. Others, including the highly publicized Kamloops Indian Residential School burials—two hundred fifteen graves supposed to have been discovered by ground-penetrating radar—turned out to be entirely fictional. 

Yet the uncertainty of the situation did not stop even many Catholics from condemning the Church. In accepting the now-disproven claims of mass graves, many of them seem accidentally to have internalized the anti-Christian animus that drove so much of the outrage in the first place. Such critics often give the impression that it is not the failures of the residential schools to which they principally object, but the very idea of their success. D.W. Lafferty, writing for the blog Where Peter Is, practically says as much. 

The individual instances of terrible abuse that happened in the residential schools must of course be condemned, but we must also grapple with the fact that the Church took part in an effort to erase a culture and break apart family structures. Those who participated in it may have done so with the intention of saving souls, but that does not mean their actions did not add up to a great institutional sin. 

Lafferty also references how, in 2009, during a meeting with a delegation led by the Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations of Canada, Pope Benedict XVI “expressed his sorrow at the anguish caused by the deplorable conduct of some members of the Church.” Lafferty, however, insists that deplorable conduct is not all that demands an apology. The very existence of Christian residential schools should be the object of contrition. 

According to this view, the Church herself and all of her members must apologize not just for the sins committed by individual members or even for systematic failures, but for attempting to evangelize in the first place—for asserting that another religion was false and its attendant culture frequently wretched. I am no theologian, but I don’t think this is what we mean when we speak of the Church Penitent.

And make no mistake: the demanded apology must be ongoing and ceaseless. Another prominent blogger, Samuel Rocha, reminded us as early as 2018 that it is “important to make a small distinction between the very real need for the Church to continue to repeat its apologies to all the people it has harmed, especially the Indigenous people who suffered under the residential schools, and the need for a single apology.” Rocha added that “as a lay person, my ecclesial Catholic voice is limited, but allow me to say as I sit in the traditional and unceded lands of the Musqueam people, I will unite my sorrow . . . to the guilt I share and must accept as a Roman Catholic living in Canada.” 

Similar arguments have been common in recent years, denouncing the Church for alleged misdeeds while softening the rebuke with public penance for a sin the denouncer has not committed. In the Catholic Herald, Robert P. George recently made perhaps the most direct version of the argument, insisting that the very premise of the residential schools was abhorrent:

The supposition in the error is that since children may legitimately be taken from parents to protect them from physical and some forms of psychological abuse, surely it must be acceptable to take them away for the good of their immortal souls. After all, the erroneous reasoning goes, the spiritual is more important than the physical, or anything else. 

Why such reasoning is erroneous George does not explain. Instead, he simply speculates that, if we accept an overriding public interest in the salvation of souls, we effectively give carte blanche to the progressive left to use the same extraordinary measures in service of “the new religion.” He draws a straight line from the missionaries who ran schools to give Christian formation to native children many years ago under radically different and indeed unrepeatable circumstances to those today who “want a child who feels gender dysmorphia to have the right to life-altering hormonal and even irreversible surgical treatments, without the parents’ permission and even without their knowledge . . . for the child’s good!” 

The comparison between the residential schools and the transgender movement is not a fair one. There is a difference between good things and bad things, and there is a difference between falsehood and truth. One cannot help but wonder whether the division here is really between those who can and cannot imagine the world of the original mission to the natives, with its grand tug-of-war over souls between the Father Le Jeunes and the Carigonans.

The stakes of that struggle were both eternal and immense. Pastedechouan is said to have died alone, drunk and starving in the wilds of Quebec. Mestigoit, who was drawn to the priest but could not escape his imperious brother’s orbit, went mad and ran into the waters of the St. Lawrence, where he drowned. Carigonan himself burned to death. (Le Jeune had warned him that he might.) By some accounts the Sorcerer’s cabin was set alight by a follower who had tired of his company. 

None of these men died a Christian. Both the Sorcerer and the apostate died despising the Church whose priests had crossed an ocean for the salvation of their souls. Unable to win him, despite heroic efforts, Le Jeune ended one dispatch back to France by commending Carigonan’s soul to the prayers of all who would read his story. He kept at his work, suffering, teaching, and preaching among the natives, and slowly—as he helped them to understand the content of the faith and convinced them of its truth—he made converts. Among the first, in the spring of 1636, was Carigonan’s son.

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