The Alberta bishops' recent pastoral letter on Indian residential schools did many positive things. Besides again apologizing for Catholic involvement in the schools and inviting the Catholic community to participate in the March 27-30 Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in Edmonton, the bishops also said "God is speaking to us today through the gifts of aboriginal culture and spirituality."
Further, the bishops also committed themselves "to challenge attitudes of racism and prejudice that continue to exist in Alberta and Canada today." To accomplish this in a way that is effective and lasting is no small job.
At the Feb. 24 press conference at which the bishops' statement was released, Archbishop Richard Smith referred to the Returning to Spirit program, which counts the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and several other Catholic and other Christian organizations as its partners.
Returning to Spirit is an extensive and well-regarded program at which groups of aboriginal and non-aboriginal people each meet separately for five days and then later get together for five additional days of workshops aimed at healing and personal empowerment.
It may indeed take a program as extensive as Returning to Spirit to root out vestiges of racist attitudes. However, the program is so lengthy that only a minority of people are likely to take advantage of it. As well, those who knowingly harbour prejudices against aboriginal people would not be inclined to participate.
The Church and Racism, a 1988 statement of the Pontifical Commission for Justice and Peace, encouraged "constructive solutions" to the problem of racism. "The Church wants first and foremost to change racist attitudes, including those within her own communities," it stated.
However, despite its notable length and many strengths, the Vatican statement was shy on describing specific "constructive solutions" that ought to be taken.
Few people in our politically correct society are inclined to express overtly racist attitudes. Yet, racism is a reality, one that often goes underground rather than disappearing. One can see racism when the apartment for rent suddenly becomes occupied when a First Nations couple comes to sign the lease, the convenience store clerk who chases native kids out of the store, those who refuse to sit beside the black man on the bus, and those moviegoers who refer to the Muslim family sitting next to them as terrorists.
In times of civil strife, various forms of prejudice can spring up where previously there appeared to be ethnic and religious harmony. In many such places, people who are in some way different report being turned upon with violence by neighbours or long-standing friends.
Silencing those who make boorish, racist remarks or filing human rights complaints against those who violate that code may deter such actions. They don't, however, always do much to change people's hearts.
Often, racist attitudes can be found in those who have had no real contact with those of other races and cultures. A wider exposure that enables people of different cultures or races to know each other as persons, rather than
stereotypical objects of derision, can sometimes undercut such prejudices.
Unhappily, that is not always a solution. Clear teaching of Christian doctrine about the equal dignity of all people can also help to form active Christians who take their Church's teaching seriously. Actions that publicly witness one's belief in that equal dignity can also set an example. The public defence of victims of racism and opposition to racist policies can be of further assistance.
Racist attitudes often have roots in simple human greed. Many of the first Europeans who came to North America lived in harmony with native people. But when foreign powers and white businesses decided to take the possessions of the First Nations for themselves – whether land, furs or gold – aboriginal people became cast as "savages."
Exposure of the economic roots of racism can not only help to change attitudes, but also spur us to begin building toward justice and lasting reconciliation.
The Alberta bishops have undertaken an important commitment, one that admits of no quick solutions. Nevertheless, overcoming racism is an important witness to the Gospel and an essential step to building a more harmonious society.