If God were Alive Today: Remembering Maisie Shaw and Berny Cameron

A Christmas Reflection to be read, if possible, in every Catholic and United Church service across Canada


It’s well into the night here in Nanaimo, and although the cold rain beats incessantly at our home, the fire inside is roaring. Carol is asleep next to me on the couch and my stomach is filled and warmed with good cheer. And yet my thoughts are far from my cocoon of peace, as they have been every Christmas Eve for the past nearly two decades.

Her name was Maisie Shaw, and she would have turned eighty this year. Instead, she died a young teenager at the bottom of some concrete stairs an hour’s drive from here, on Christmas Eve in 1946.

A Christian killed Maisie with his angry boot: a man named Reverend Alfred Caldwell, who died peacefully in bed years later after being officially honored as a “true man of God and a servant of the aboriginal community” by his United Church of Canada, and handsomely pensioned.

But on Christmas Eve of 1946, Alfred Caldwell ignored Maisie’s small corpse at the bottom of the stairs, according to the other young girl who saw the murder. He walked away from his crime, and sometime later that night he wished all the still-breathing girls and boys at the Alberni Indian residential school a happy Christmas after they’d sung songs about the gentle newborn named Jesus. And then, later, Alfred Caldwell raped another one of those little children in his room, or two of them at a time, like he did almost every night he was Principal there.

The boot that erased Maisie Shaw wiped out a whole bloodline of unborn souls who would have sprung from her.

Somehow I see their many faces as I gaze just now out my warmth-fogged window, knowing that their spirits will linger among us only as long as someone cares about who they might have been. I even imagine that one or two of their spectral images might tonight visit a reclusive United Church official or Prime Minister with a name not unlike Ebenezer Scrooge, and pull back another one of them from the brink of their own selves. But such hope is for fairy tales told in comfortable rooms, and very soon all of their lost and betrayed faces ripple and fade away into the cold night.

What persists for Canadians is not the battered and bloody end of a little girl named Maisie, but the warm fact of our fireplaces and our full stomachs. And so ultimately I understand all the others who feel the fullness of their lives and so must deny the incomprehensible truth of what we have done and the filth that we all sustain.

I have told the world about Maisie Shaw and those like her for seventeen years now, ever since I learned of her fate; and Canada has been changed for it. And yet nothing has really changed.

Accused murderer of both Maisie Shaw and Albert Gray. Principal Rev. Alfred E. Caldwell (Ahousat, 1935-40, Alberni 1944-1953)

For just last month, another clergyman much like Alfred Caldwell got a medal from the Canadian government. His name is Bernard Cameron; and as a catholic priest in Cornwall, Ontario he was officially named in a National Citation as someone who has `”done a lot of good in the community and has made us all very proud”, according to his local Member of Parliament.

Bernard Cameron is also a serial child rapist, as his own victims have declared in public. But like Alfred Caldwell, Berny will never see the inside of a prison, and he will rape children until he dies. Canada and its churches, after all, know how to take care of their own.

If God were alive today, I wonder what would happen to Caldwell, and Berny Cameron, and all the others who officially do good? After all, since it’s the drive to make the world a better place by making other people different that has brought us to where we are today, then I figure that a Supreme Deity might have a different plan in mind besides doing good.

For if God were actually alive today, and not allowing the Caldwells and the Camerons to win all the time, maybe all that stuff attributed to Him or Her in the Bible might start happening. And wouldn’t that be pleasant for all of us, starting with our Official Do-Gooders like Alfred Caldwell and Berny Cameron?

But I wouldn’t hold your breaths.

I hear the Vatican is working overtime these days to have child rapists re-classified as “non-offenders” under psychiatric and statutory laws around the world. And the Harper government recently changed the law in Canada requiring only a one year mandatory sentence for child rape. So I guess Canada’s medal to Berny Cameron isn’t so unusual, after all: most likely, it’s the wave of the future.

Things are probably better this way: Berny Cameron gets his medal and the rest of us keep trying to do good within easy reach of our fireplaces. And Maisie Shaw stays moldering in her unmarked and forgotten grave.

After all, are you prepared for the alternative?

Merry Christmas.