As he lay in a Calgary hospital bed in late July, retired Bishop Fred Henry summoned the energy to publicly break the silence around what he considers the prevailing “lie” about missing Indian residential school children.

“Why is the Catholic Church not asking the federal government for proof that even one residential child is actually missing in the sense that his (or) her parents didn’t know what happened to their child at the time of the child’s death?” he demanded in an e-mail.

The query itself was posed to both The Catholic Register and a former Register columnist who has challenged political accounts of Indian residential school history. Bishop Emeritus Henry apparently went to Catholic media because he has not yet received  a response to an initial group e-mail he sent to his brother bishops six weeks ago.

On June 26, using the subject line “Lockjaw,” Henry asked the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops to publicly and formally reject the interim report of the federal justice minister’s special advisor on missing children and unmarked graves associated with Indian residential schools.

As part of her report, Kimberly Murray recommended creating the criminal offence of “denialism” that could be applied to those who dispute Indigenous accounts related to residential schools. Then Justice Minister David Lametti indicated he was amenable to drafting such legislation. In his June e-mail to the bishops, Henry compared the CCCB’s non-response to an ostrich with its head in the sand and its tail in the air.

“I have not had any response from the powers that be,” he told this newspaper in a subsequent e-mail.

‘Why is the Catholic Church not asking the federal government for proof that even one residential school child is actually missing?’

In response to an inquiry from The Register, Archbishop Richard Smith of Edmonton and Archbishop Don Bolen of Regina, two of the Church’s leaders on the Indigenous file, said they are waiting for the final report from Murray before commenting on the special advisor’s work.

Yet even hospitalized at age 80, “Red Fred” as he became popularly known during his active ministry, expresses a sense of urgency for having what he regards as the whole truth told about Indian residential school history.

In fact, Henry’s health is so fragile that he replied to a Register request for an interview by saying he would “love to” participate but was on his way to respite care after 11 days in hospital. Even minus a direct conversation, however, his take on the current narrative vis-à-vis Indian residential schools is unabashedly iconoclastic. He does not dispute the need for reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. He simply insists there must be boundaries, and they must begin where the truth leaves off.

“It seems abundantly clear to me (to ask what follows) if the Catholic Church… allows the lie that there are thousands of missing residential school children to become embedded in stone? Obviously, (it means) these thousands of missing children were murdered by Catholic priests and nuns and clandestinely buried in unmarked graves. Is the Catholic Church prepared to go that far in the name of reconciliation?” he demands in the e-mail sent to The Register.

Henry foresees precisely that outcome “rapidly happening” given recent reports from Parliament and an upcoming report to the UN in September by Special Rapporteur Francisco Cali Tzay, who visited Canada this spring but had no time to meet with the CCCB.

“Would it help Indigenous people across Canada to better lives if the Catholic Church did go so far as to take responsibility for the murder and clandestine burial of thousands of residential school children in the name of reconciliation?” Henry asks. “No, it wouldn’t. It wouldn’t improve the lives of Indigenous people one iota if that monstrous libel against the Oblates, the Sisters of St. Ann, the Grey Nuns et al were to become the accepted ‘truth’ in Canada.”

In his e-mail, the bishop who served the Diocese of Calgary for almost 19 years and who has been a priest for 55 years, wonders whether his fellow clergy simply don’t see the implications of allowing that “truth” to stand.  

“If so, it’s not because those pushing the genocide (of Indigenous people) narrative haven’t made it clear where things are headed. It’s not the federal government that’s going to be held responsible for Canada’s murder and clandestine burial of thousands of missing children. It’s the Catholic Church.”

Henry notes an additional confusing factor is his inability to get any kind of answer about the existential questions he’s been raising, especially given the “synodal listening process” the Church is undertaking.

“For some reason ‘they have eyes to see but refuse to see, ears to hear but refuse to listen,’ ” he writes. “Their silence is doing irreparable harm to the Church that I love.”

Read it all at the Catholic Register