'The final straw': Some Catholic Canadians renounce church as residential school outrage grows

Outrage directed at the Catholic Church for its role in Canada’s residential school system continues, with more churches allegedly set ablaze and faithful followers questioning their loyalty to the institution.

While some continue to call for a Papal apology, others have renounced the church altogether, unable to come to terms with the atrocities carried out by religious leaders.

“I’ve struggled with my feelings for the church and its position on many issues, including Indigenous rights, and I felt I’d reached this moment where I couldn’t take it anymore,” writer Bernadette Hardaker told CTV National News from her home in Orangeville, Ont.

In a recent editorial published by the Globe and Mail, Hardaker – who now describes herself as a former Catholic – said she was ashamed that she “upheld an institution that dodges and waves instead of taking responsibility.”

What started as an urge to write the Pope directly quickly turned into a printed confession of the shame she carried as a Catholic, writing, “This is more than hypocrisy; more than moral bankruptcy. This is sin, of the most mortal kind.”

“You can’t be part of an organization for your whole life and not care about it,” Hardaker told CTV National News.

“You want it to be better, and you know it should be better because the whole foundation of the teachings of the Catholic faith are based on love thy neighbour, and the attitudes of being kind, good, fair and honest.”

Hardaker is not alone in her internal struggles with the church. A growing number of Canadians are distancing themselves from the Catholic Church, which administrated an estimated 70 per cent of Canada's residential schools.

While Anglican, United and Presbyterian churches were also involved, particular focus has been put on the Catholic Church for its failure to formally offer a substantial and meaningful apology for the atrocities committed against Indigenous peoples despite repeated requests.

Now, in light of the finding of hundreds of unmarked graves at former residential school sites around the country, there is growing outrage towards the church, resulting in alleged arson attacks on Catholic and Anglican churches in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. Dozens more across the country have been vandalized.

Others are simply choosing to leave.

"I just felt the need to basically renounce it," Joey Matheson, former Catholic from Sydney, N.S., told CTV National News, who was met with some push back when he informed his parish he intended to leave.

“A lot of downplaying, a lot of placing blame elsewhere.”

Father Michael Bechard of the Diocese of London, Ont., says he has heard from both parishioners and non-religious community members alike who are concerned about the church’s lack of response to the crisis.

“I think that people reaching out to us for guidance or clarity is a good thing. They’re trying to figure out how could an institution which is supposed to represent peace, healing, forgiveness and love be involved in such atrocities,” Bechard told CTV National News.

“For Catholics to recognize that probably close to 70 per cent of the residential schools were operated by members of the Catholic Church… this is shocking for a lot of people.”

Bechard, the founder of a non-for-profit organization which seeks to bring healing and reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities, says that some individual bishops and leaders within the Church have worked hard to mend the ties between the Church and Indigenous peoples. Other reactions, he notes, have fallen short.

“I think what all of us can do moving forward is to commit ourselves to living in such a way that we refuse to be silent on the issues of abuse, implicit in areas that continue to exploit Indigenous peoples, and actively work to undo some of the wrongs that some of our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents may have committed,” he said.

“We have an obligation [as Catholics] to step up and be leaders in this area.”

But former Catholics like Hardaker doubt that the church will step up and commit to clear action any time soon.

“I think the church has a long way to go,” she said when asked if the Church could regain her trust.

“The windows need to open and the light needs to come in on so many things. To me, this was the final straw. An apology is just that, an apology. It is words. It’s actions that back up those words that will make the difference. So, I think I’ll be standing on the sidelines for quite some time.”

- Battis reported from Halifax, N.S.