by Ken MacDougall
When I moved my family to teach in a southwestern town in Saskatchewan, I was called a “newcomer” – not because of that move, but because my family weren’t living here in 1909. After moving into our new temporary home, we decided to take a sightseeing tour of the downtown to get a “feel” for its “neighbourliness”. We soon got our answer; a small green apple thrown at us from a passing pick-up, hurled at my head just as we stopped to admire the display in a merchant’s window. It glanced off my shoulder. barely missing the head of my seven-month old daughter whom I was carrying in a front-mounted carry-all.
“Go back to where you f___ing came from, Squaw Man,” a barely turned 14-year old screamed, as the driver gunned it and sped down the main drag.
Coming off the TransCanada into town, a fresh-faced billboard told us that there were more than twenty different church denominations – in a community of just over 2,000. Some I’d never heard of; however, in school the adherence to fundamentalism by shunning even reference to Darwin led to my having a very large Physics 30 class, strangely composed of mostly bright young women whose mathematical skills were seriously impressive. Listening to conversations about their “boyfriends” took some getting used to, though; most wondered what “he” looked like, or where in the Caribbean they’d be living after graduation. Even so, their teasing of one another mostly took the form of who in the group would bear the first child, then raising them “according to God’s will” as parents and their preacher were commanding.
Young males, however, didn’t seem all that enamoured with the “inevitability” of such religious conformity. Almost half were confirmed alcoholics by the time they finished Grade 10. Not all even made it to graduation.
Even in pre-1990’s studies, such expression of either conformity or rebellion towards extreme religiosity within fundamentalist and “evangelical” families exuded a disturbing statistical relationship. These behaviours were being forcefully acquired by children through the application of strict constraints, like those imposed by parents whose fathers had chosen lifelong military careers.
Psychological journals refer to the phenomenon as “Military Family Syndrome”. Such families are headed by a parent, almost always male, supported by a partner whose love subordinates her questioning of the strictness of family discipline imposed by conformity to military protocol or by preaching of “faith”.
Willfully accepting such behavioural restraints by children has almost always been seen as unacceptable and anti-democratic; this is due to the codifying of temporal relationships between secular thought and religious belief has usually established by defining some “role” for a man or woman as being “equal” according to current belief. For instance, even Europe’s predominant Catholic faith limitedly championed Jesus’s message as one of communal survival, even allowing women to express their “condition” in the presence of God’s own son.
“Doubts” that existed within the framing of such law were left to the Church’s monasteries and nunneries to resolve. Eventually, however, an increasingly frustrated papal leadership saw such questioning of the faith as heresy and the unacceptability of their doctrine; thus, its institutions and clergy now found themselves tasked to highlight the immaculateness of Church law and the leadership that brought it to fruition.
By changing its focus of study, the Catholic aristocracy now found itself challenging secular-driven questions arising from scientific observation, for instance Galileo believing that the Earth was not the centre of the universe demanded recantation for even uttering such blasphemy. This unsettling questioning of scientific observation hasn’t diminished over time, either; in the 1950’s Immanuel Velikovsky’ publication of “Worlds in Collision”, a treatise postulating, among other things, that extraterrestrial havoc allowed for the parting of seas so that Moses could lead Israelites out of their enslavement by Egypt, created an almost crazed denunciation of its content from the Church, much as did Darwin’s theories on evolution or theories as to the age of Earth itself.
By the 1500’s, religious scholars such as Martin Luther and John Calvin were taking exception with the Church’s welcoming those whose interests in seeking papal favour had more to do with the creation of wealth and power than a belief in its faith. In his thoughts expressed in “Temporal Authority”, Luther vaguely suggested that the Church may have been “wrong” in tying secular thought to religious belief, hinting instead that we were but part of two “kingdoms” over which the Creator ruled, one in which He did so exclusively and the other by consensus and philosophical discussion based upon scientific learnings.
Since Reformation, there have come forward an almost avalanche of “interpretations” of Biblical verse, each successively by an increasingly conservative evangelical movement. Today, this sickness clouding the thoughts of those who still believe in a Supreme Deity has created issues that threaten the evolution of the democratic state – racism, the denial of differing sexual orientations existing within some men and women, the right of women to control their own bodies in procreation and birth, and, ironically, an epidemic of intolerance towards those “daring” to challenge the direction in which the majority of these sects have chosen to interpret their faith.
John Calvin, while agreeing with Luther’s sentiments, had a few of his own that might give some of these so-called “evangelical” movements thoughts for second reflection. Whereas there may be “division” between church and state, he suggested, God’s rule over each is governed by the knowledge that your specific point of view, religiously speaking, may be accepted within the secular regime, but you’re not going to find that out until it comes time to be judged when you enter His Kingdom.
In the past two weeks, Canada’s attention has been focused upon the large numbers of unmarked children’s graves, found on the grounds of “residential” schools established by Sir John A. MacDonald’s government, and administered by the Catholic Church. In 1879, the British Empire “ruled the waves” in a brutally benign exhibition of wealth and power. That leadership, which included Canada’s, found it reasonable to believe that the Empire, despite its policies of exploitation of African and Asian populations, its building of a highly lucrative slave trade, and its tacit ignoring of American military preference towards the genocide of its Indigenous peoples or even the “smallpox blanket” “spreading of the faith” as practiced by Portugal, Belgium and Spain, the Empire’s growth in power and wealth came from its adherence, questioned or otherwise, of its Christian religious practice.
The original intent of our government creating these “residential” schools was to remove and isolate Indigenous children from the influence of their home, families, traditions and cultures, and thereby assimilate them into the dominant European culture of Canada. In MacDonald’s own words, “Though he may learn to read and write his habits, and training and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write.”
It should be noted that even though most of the Catholic leadership of the day believed that Indigenous people were “without souls”, they were at odds with a papal edict published by Pope Paul III in 1537, wherein he would proclaim that Indigenous peoples were human and welcome to learn on their own time the teachings of Jesus. In actuality, then, it wasn’t as though Indigenous peoples had no “soul” or religious custom; rather, it was the European culture’s singular worshipping of wealth defining the ascension to world power as opposed to Indigenous custom, where land was not “property”, but a shared resource husbanded and nurtured by its people. In particular, the potlatch, which saw its practitioners give away their wealth, was particularly “pagan” and an apparent contradiction to the current beliefs of Christianity, and therefore should be “outlawed” – which it eventually was.
This brings us back then to the outpouring of disgust towards the Catholic Church (while ignoring that of the Anglican and United churches participation) in administering our residential school system. It is not the way most of us today, irrespective of our own religious beliefs, would want to see the popular hymn phrase, “Suffer, little children” become our – or God’s – way of having Indigenous children “come unto” Him.
And so I come back to our children and my experience as a teacher in wondering why in a world in which we are laden with miracle medical advances such as the Covid-19 vaccines and technology that allows us to measure soil nutrients on Mars, why this first experience in coming back to Saskatchewan still disturbs.
I’m “white” AND non-Indigenous; and yet a barely 14 year-old saw me as something else whose lifestyle and parenting techniques should be challenged in a violent yet anonymous manner. Someone taught that child to “think” like that: his parents, the messages he was receiving from the pulpit, or a government whose membership embraced similar scripture interpretations and annoyances to life.
You make the call here…