As It Happens·Q&A

Indigenous activist 'disgusted' by Winnipeg priest's residential school comments

Kyle Mason says he’s deeply upset by the “out of touch and racist viewpoints” expressed by a Catholic priest in Winnipeg.

Father Rhéal Forest banned from sermons after accusing survivors of lying for money 

Kyle Mason is an activist, speaker and former Christian minister in Winnipeg. (Warren Kay/CBC)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

Read Story Transcript

Kyle Mason says he's deeply upset by the "out of touch and racist viewpoints" expressed by a Catholic priest in Winnipeg.

The Winnipeg archdiocese has banned Father Rhéal Forest from speaking publicly after videos surfaced of him downplaying the church's role in residential school abuse and accusing survivors of lying about sexual abuse for money. Albert LeGatt, the Archdiocese of St. Boniface, disavowed the comments in a Facebook video on Thursday.

Forest made the comments during sermons at the St. Emile Roman Catholic Church, where he was filling in while the regular priest was on vacation.

Between the 1870s and 1990s, Canada's federal government took more than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children from their families and forced them to attend church-run residential schools designed to assimilate them by stripping them of their own languages and cultures. 

Abuse at the schools was rampant, according to Canada's 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, which collected testimony from survivors across the country. 

Mason is an Indigenous activist in Winnipeg, a former Christian minister and the son of a residential school survivor. Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens guest host Ginella Massa. 

Just tell me what your first reaction was when you heard these comments from Father Forest through his sermons?

I was saddened and disgusted. I was really sad to hear that somebody in his type of position could still hold these kind of views after everything that's been said and done.

He talked about the fact that he worked up north for 22 years and people he knew liked residential schools. And maybe the most inflammatory comment was the one about residential school survivors lying about sexual abuse to get more money from the federal government, saying: "It's kind of hard if you're poor not to lie."

Survivors had to endure unspeakable horrors, tragedies, and that attempted genocide on cultures and language. So it is absolutely disgusting that you would just label them as lying to get more money. It's truly, truly unbelievable that, again, somebody in this position could have such outdated and out of touch and racist viewpoints.

Father Rhéal Forest delivers a sermon on July 10, in which he said residential school survivors would lie about being sexually abused in order to receive more settlement money. (St. Emile Parish/Facebook)

I understand your father is a residential school survivor.

Yes, my father attended residential schools for a number of years, most of his school-age years. So, yeah, residential schools are not ancient history. They're a very real part of our family. And my father was deeply impacted by the trauma and the horror that he had to live through.

I've heard stories about being beaten, being publicly embarrassed and, of course, the other stories about, you know, the rapes and all that kind of stuff and not being able to speak language or culture, or not seeing family members for years. He went through some real tragic and terrible things. So it is extremely maddening that somebody would basically call him and other survivors liars for money.

What do you think your father might say, or how do you think he might react?

The viewpoints I've heard in the past with similar comments is that it's hurtful. It's triggering to hear people question him to tell him and other survivors that they're either making it up or making too much of it, or they're just not being thankful enough for the quote-unquote good that took place there.

It's hard to be thankful for any good that might have happened — and that's a very big might — when you had to endure so much trauma and criminal and just genocidal activities. Every time these stories kind of come up, I can see my father get emotional and be deeply impacted by these kind of comments.

One of the other things he talked about was, you know, trying to kind of deflect blame away from priests and nuns, saying that most of the time if there was abuse, it was from, you know, the nightwatchman or other laypeople who were in the building. What do you make of this sort of attempt to absolve the church from blame?

He's wrong. And I think it's a cowardly attempt to try to distance himself and his church from all the atrocities. And it does not fall in line with the vast majority of survivors when they have shared their stories publicly, that it's not just staff, that it was also priests and it was nuns.

And it doesn't matter who it was. We're talking about people employed by churches that did these terrible things to children. It doesn't matter what title they had or what rank they had. 

The archdiocese has condemned Father Forest's comments. They've banned him from preaching. But I think it's worth noting that this event happened three weeks ago and this only kind of came out because the videos were posted online. What does that tell you about the fact that there wasn't sort of an immediate outcry or response from parishioners when the sermon first happened?

It is disappointing. You would like to think that people [would have] … said something and right away, that there would have been outrage internally from that parish or the congregation. And obviously, I don't know why that didn't happen. It may be a case of parishioners not feeling comfortable speaking up to the priest, particularly if he is a visiting priest.

In this day and age, nobody, whether Indigenous or non-Indigenous, can let these kind of comments just slide ... and just go without being challenged. They always, always need to be challenged and to say this is not right; this is wrong.

It does feel a little bit like the bishop and archdiocese are only responding because they, quote unquote, got caught and it got the attention of the media. 

Forest made the comments during recent sermons at St. Emile Catholic Church in Winnipeg. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

What do you think needs to happen as far as, maybe this specific church, but also just the institution of the Catholic Church in general in terms of reconciliation, and to this priest as well? What do you think should happen next?

I don't think he should ever be allowed to speak publicly again in this capacity unless he goes through some significant education and training where he is taught and actually understands the real history of residential schools, his church's role in it and the impacts it continues to have in our society.

The Canadian Catholic Church as a whole, as far I understand, has yet to apologize. And you can read other stories even recently in the news where they didn't pay their share when it comes to the residential school settlement.

So it is way past due for the church, the Catholic Church, to apologize. They should make financial payments that they agreed on. And they, as a whole, should be enthusiastically making sure that all their priests, all their nuns, all their staff, no matter where they are on the ladder, have the appropriate understanding of Canadian history and the present and that there would be no room whatsoever within their ranks for somebody to have these kind of views. 

Support is available for anyone affected by the lingering effects of residential school and those who are triggered by the latest reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for residential school survivors and others affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from CBC Manitoba. Interview produced by Chris Harbord. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now