Canadians generally have a positive view of the role religious communities have played in the country’s development, but there is one glaring exception: the treatment of indigenous Canadians.
The latest instalment of a polling project tied to the 150th anniversary of Confederation finds that Canadians view residential schools as “a major black mark on the history of religion in Canada,” the Angus Reid Institute reports.
Conducted from June 14-19, the poll found that overall, 37 per cent of respondents rated religious communities’ involvement with indigenous Canadians as “very negative,” compared with just 14 per cent who said it was “very positive.” Another 32 per cent said the record was a mix of good and bad, while 16 per cent said they were not aware of any involvement.
Asked specifically about churches’ historical role operating residential schools, 58 per cent said it was “very negative,” compared with nine per cent who said it was “very positive,” 20 per cent a mix of good and bad and 13 per cent who were not aware of any role.
“There is consensus on this issue and the fact that it is a dark chapter of our history that we need to own,” said Ray Pennings, executive vice-president of the think tank Cardus, which initiated the Faith in Canada 150 project. “We can’t run from it.”
It is a dark chapter of our history
The survey, conducted by the Angus Reid Institute in partnership with Faith in Canada 150, is part of a yearlong project gauging Canadians’ beliefs and religious practices. It grouped respondents into four categories ranging from non-believers who doubt or reject the existence of God to religiously committed who attend places of worship regularly.
Across all four groups, people were more likely to say residential schools were negative than positive. The gap was most pronounced among non-believers, with 73 per cent viewing the impact as negative and just three per cent saying positive,
But even the religiously committed were three times more likely to see residential schools as negative (49 per cent) than positive (16 per cent.)
A large majority of respondents, 77 per cent, said it is important for Canadian churches to work toward reconciliation with indigenous Canadians, and they feel the work remains largely unfinished. Thirty-eight per cent of those surveyed said churches are doing poorly in their reconciliation efforts, compared with 16 per cent who said they were doing well and 46 per cent who were unaware of where things stand. Again, the results are notably different for the variously committed. Only three per cent of non-believers say churches are doing well in their efforts, compared with 36 per cent of the religiously committed.
Ray Aldred, director of the Indigenous Studies Program at the Vancouver School of Theology and a participant in the Faith in Canada 150 project, said the process of reconciliation will be long.
“The problem is some people have had other people’s things for so long that they think they are theirs. Some things are going to have to be given back — money, land. But the toughest one in my mind is how do you give back a sense of dignity once it’s been destroyed?” asked Aldred, a status Cree from Alberta.
“I think churches are trying. I think they’re probably working harder than just about any other institution in Canadian society,” he added.
On other fronts, Canadians hold more favourable views of religious groups’ contributions to the country. Asked to score the overall impact of religious organizations “on the development of your community,” 45 per cent said it was good, 42 per cent said a mix of good and bad and 13 per cent said it was bad.
When asked about specific services provided by religious groups, from delivering health care and education to helping seniors, the disabled and refugees, respondents overall were more positive than negative. The appreciation for good works did not translate into a high score when respondents were asked their view of various institutions’ contribution to Canada over the last 150 years. Faith groups got a positive score from just 33 per cent of respondents, well below the RCMP and the national railroads at 70 per cent. Even Canada’s chartered banks fared better at 36 per cent.
Pennings said high numbers of respondents answered that they were unaware of faith groups contributions in specific fields. “The poll as a whole shows we have a problem with religious literacy,” he said, calling religion “an unarticulated Canadian value.”
Angus Reid, founder and chairman of the not-for-profit research institute, said the poll shows that religion in Canada is a “multi-faceted” story, with the residential school experience casting a long shadow.
It also must be remembered that “part of the mix in views is due to a fundamental underlying difference in perception between believers and non-believers on the whole concept of religion, faith and God,” he said. “Perceptions are different in part because the values are different.”
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