Mount Cashel and Muskrat Falls
Two inquiries shook the political constitution but with two different results.
The full version. Buckle up.
This week we got one step closer to the end of the legal actions from the sexual and physical abuse suffered by boys at the Mount Cashel orphanage. The court signed off on another step to settle the last of the claims from men who, as boys, were abused at the boys’ home run by the Christian Brothers, an Irish Roman Catholic religious order.
Shane Earle came forward with his story in 1989. That’s 34 years ago. Other stories went back to the 1950s. A public inquiry by Ontario Justice Sam Hughes was broadcast live and the sordid tale of corruption in all its forms became a daily obsession with many people across the province.
We learned, among a great many other things, that young men and women had come forward in the early 1970s, told police about abuse. In 1975, a policed investigation police had confessions from two members of the Roman Catholic religious order that ran the orphanage. But senior justice department and police officials conspired with local church leaders, ordered that officers alter reports to hide the confessions, and let the church spirit the abusers away to other parts of Canada, where they preyed on other children. There’s a was a brief mention of the corruption in a 1979 inquiry into a political scandal but that apparently slipped most people’s attention.
The revelations about Mount Cashel and the Hughes inquiry triggered other events. Officials closed the orphanage, sold the land, and watched it developed into a supermarket. even the name of the site disappeared. The pattern of abuse and the cover-up of horrific crimes wasn’t confined to the orphanage. The same things happened in parishes across the province but church leaders merely moved the priests from one rectory to another. The Roman Catholic church commissioned an inquiry of its own headed by a former lieutenant governor. The inquiry heard calls for a fundamental reform of the way the church related to parishioners. All were ignored.
The revelations about Mount Cashel was the first of what became a string of scandals in Newfoundland and Labrador, across Canada, the United States, Australia, and Ireland. Most involved other Roman Catholic schools and orphanages. Some involved schools orphanages run by other Christian sects. In the Newfoundland and Labrador context, what happened at the orphanage in St. Anthony and in boarding schools in Labrador more closely resembled Mount Cashel, Belvedere and other local orphanages where those with power abused the most vulnerable in our society happened than the Canadian racist residential schools.
It’s no accident, no coincidence at all, that not long after Hughes submitted his final report, the people of Newfoundland and Labrador voted overwhelmingly in favour of ending the sectarian school system across the province. The only public schools in Newfoundland and Labrador were run by boards belonging to seven Christian sects, all of whom held constitutional rights to public money to run the schools.
It was the last vestige of a key element Newfoundland’s constitution before 1949, transformed through the Terms of Union from a de facto part into a written, de jure part. Attempts to reform the system in 1967 fell largely on deaf ears, especially among Roman Catholics and in 1982, the ostensibly nationalist government led by Brian Peckford extended the right to religiously-controlled education to smaller, fundamentalist sects. One of those sects triggered a confrontation with the provincial government in the early 1990s that led ultimately to the abolition of the sectarian system, but Mount Cashel and the stories of abuse that came after Shane Earle’s initial story put the religious partisans on the back foot for the first time in well over a century.
In one sense, the transformation was quick. In fewer than 20 years, more and more students arriving in university heard of the sectarian system in courses on Newfoundland and Labrador society and history and genuinely had no idea what professors were talking about. In another sense, the traces of the system lingered if only in the schools now run by the provincial government but carrying names like Holy Family or Holy Heart of Mary. Only schools of the old fundamentalist boards changed names.
There was resistance to the end of sectarian schools. Some of the faithful went to court, arguing they had a constitutional right to education as a minority. But their argument was rooted in a Canadian experience where some sects ran private, religious schools with public money alongside a non-sectarian public system. But in Newfoundland and Labrador, the whole system was religiously divided. There were *no* public schools. Every church member held rights in education under the constitution and an overwhelming majority of them, including a majority of Roman Catholics, by implication of the result, voted to surrender their own rights in favour of a genuinely public, non-sectarian system.
Muskrat Falls was very different. *Is* very different. But still the same.
Thanks for reading Bond Papers. Become a subscriber to see more. Literally. Figuratively.