Brian Bird: For reconciliation to stand a chance, vandalism must stop

In a society ruled by law, injustice is resolved peacefully, not by vigilantism and violence
St. Jean Baptiste Parish Catholic church is shown in Morinville, Alberta, on June 30, 2021 as firefighters put out hot spots. The Catholic Church in northern Alberta has been destroyed by what RCMP are calling a suspicious fire. Jason Franson/The Canadian Press.

The disturbing discoveries of unmarked graves of Indigenous children at the sites of former residential schools offer a chance to increase awareness of the enduring tragedy of these schools and build new bridges between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians.

Instead of seizing this moment to treat longstanding wounds, fresh ones are being inflicted. They may stall our journey to reconciliation, and even take us off the path that leads to it.

The vandalism and burning of several churches amid the discoveries at former residential schools is a disgrace. To add insult to injury, many of these churches sat on Indigenous lands and served these communities.

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It does not take much reflection to realize that the culprits are likely not Indigenous persons but opportunistic agitators who wish to foment chaos at a precarious moment for Canada. Many Indigenous individuals and groups have condemned these acts, saying they jeopardize reconciliation.

It is dismaying that it took the burning of several places of worship before the prime minister commented on the matter on June 30, more than a week after the initial fires. It does not seem farfetched to think that the absence of an immediate and unequivocal condemnation by Justin Trudeau and other politicians emboldened copycats.

Trudeau has been quick to cite his Catholicism when calling on the Church to confront the wounds caused at residential schools that it administered, but slow to condemn the defacement and destruction of churches belonging to this faith tradition. It should never be politically incorrect or inexpedient to oppose such acts, yet one cannot help but wonder if that is where we are.

The low point in this saga may be a tweet by the executive director of the BC Civil Liberties Association on the same day that Trudeau broke his silence. Harsha Walia, in response to an article about the burning of churches, said “Burn it all down.”

That the head of an organization that defends civil liberties would endorse actions that imperil religious freedom is appalling. Mike Farnworth, B.C.’s Solicitor General and Minister of Public Safety, called the tweet “vile” and “disgusting”. Walia said, after the fact, that her tweet should not be taken literally. Two weeks later, she resigned.

This tweet is, sadly, not an isolated incident. A law professor in Toronto, commenting on Harsha Walia’s tweet, suggested that whether it is legitimate to burn Catholic churches merits debate. Another lawyer declared her support for Ms. Walia and said she would “defend anyone charged with arson if they actually did burn things.”

When members of the legal profession openly legitimize violence and crime, there is reason to fear that vital threads holding our social fabric together are fraying. If these tweets reflect the thinking of even a substantial minority of the Canadian population, then certain pillars of our civil society are under serious stress. If we do not tread carefully, they may collapse.

In moments of strain and strife, we must be particularly steadfast in our commitment to our ideals.

We are witnessing brazen vandalism not only of sacred places, but of principles that shield us from the flaws of human nature. In a society ruled by law and committed to basic decency, injustice is resolved peacefully and through proper channels, not by vigilantism and violence. The reasons why are obvious: violence begets violence, breeds resentment, and cultivates toxic tribalism.

At this moment we need antidotes to these forces and we need them in spades to meet the challenges we collectively face.

In the past we have often fallen far short of what we expect of ourselves and our society, and we continue to fall short today. Our failings toward Indigenous persons are a prime example.

But these failings do not entitle us to abandon our basic aspiration and common desire for peace, order and good government. On the contrary, in moments of strain and strife, we must be particularly steadfast in our commitment to these ideals.

The attacks on houses of worship and the disturbing responses to them are especially frustrating given that, after the revelations of the graves of Indigenous children, Catholic leaders have unreservedly apologized and firmly recommitted themselves to reconciliation.

These sentiments, I believe, are shared by lay Catholics across Canada. There is much work to do, but ingredients for real progress are present. We risk squandering this opportunity and even regressing, however, if animosity prevails over solidarity.

Retribution tempts us when injustice is committed. Retaliation can feel not merely satisfying, but righteous. But this path sets the stage for more injustice. It invites a vicious cycle. We must, for the sake of progress, choose virtue.

Reconciliation is a steeper and longer climb, but it is indeed the better way. We must summon our better angels at this crossroads, or the fires may spread beyond brick and mortar to something far more precious: the tangible but ever fragile ties of kindness and goodwill that, as Canadians, bind us together.

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