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Repentance, Healing and Reconciliation: A MISSIO Case Study from Canada

Posted on: September 21, 1999 10:00 AM
Related Categories: ACC, ACC11, evangelism, MISSIO

"In our Church we are facing great difficulties but they are not insurmountable," the Most Rev Michael Peers, Primate of Canada, said. "We must ensure that the immediate does not so engage our minds and energies that we lower our eyes from the horizon. And on our future horizon lies a renewed partnership with our indigenous people that we have been working on over the past 30 years."

"If we do lower our eyes we may find that we have lost more than our assets, for that response may loose us the next generation of leadership from indigenous people in the Anglican Church of Canada. And that voice and leadership is already becoming more visible and more audible," he said. "But we must engage in the long haul, otherwise a generation will pass before people from our Aboriginal communities will again want to exercise leadership in our church because of public perceptions about us."

Archbishop Peers was commenting on the situation presently confronting the Anglican Church of Canada following court decisions over legal suits seeking reparation from the Church. These claims related to incidents of abuse of Canadian Indian children in government and church residential schools prior to the 1960s.

The diocese of Cariboo appears to be severely affected and may be facing bankruptcy. The first decisions from the courts concerned claims related to a school in Lytton, in that diocese. The court ruled that both government and Church were jointly liable, though it awarded the majority (60 per cent) of the costs to the Church.

"Our work will go forward and we will remain strong," the Rt Rev James Cruickshank, Bishop of Cariboo, wrote in a Pastoral Letter to his diocese. " Our work will go forward and we will remain strong. We need to know that, while our assets are unclear, what is clear is that our ministry will continue. We will gather round an altar in every parish, the gospel of Jesus Christ will be proclaimed and our ministry to those inside and outside of the Church will go on."

An earlier 1998 court ruling applying to a case against a United Church school in British Columbia had ruled that those running such institutions could be held 'vicariously liable' for the actions of their employees, even if all possible precautions had been taken to avoid abuse occurring in their precincts.

That early British Columbia ruling is under appeal to the Canadian Supreme Court, and it is possible that the Anglican Church will also appeal against the Lytton judgement.

These decisions may have consequences for a number of other Canadian dioceses that also sponsored residential schools. The financial costs may have severe implications for the entire Canadian Church. The existence of these other dioceses may be under threat, and the loss of income derived from those dioceses and from Anglican Church property and endowments may greatly reduce the capacity of the Anglican Church of Canada to deliver its programmes nationally.

The Lytton case in Cariboo Diocese involved charges of sexual abuse, but others some cases relate to abuse caused through damage inflicted on indigenous culture. How the Canadian courts will handle these cases is difficult to predict at present, though many anticipate there may be strong judicial sympathy towards victims of cultural abuse.

Information about these problems faced by the Anglican and other Churches is well known in Canada, but the story was brought to the attention of the Anglican Communion worldwide in a case study "The Struggle for Transformation" which was included in the report of MISSIO (the Mission Commission of the Anglican Communion) to ACC-11, meeting in Dundee, Scotland.

The case study says that the present problems being faced by the Canadian dioceses, and the Diocese of Cariboo in particular, can be understood to stem from the colonial history of Canada and the practices of early missionaries and colonisers from Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries.

It reports that for most of the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries "the articulated goal of the federal government of Canada and the churches, indeed of non-indigenous Canadian society as a whole, towards the varied First Nations (indigenous ethnic groups) of Canada, was assimilation." As in many other societies, for example Australia, they thought that the quickest way to assimilation was "to forcibly remove indigenous children from their homes and communities, to forbid them speak their mother tongue, to condemn their customs as barbaric and their spirituality as heathen." With the best of intentions the first schools were commenced and by the end of the 19th century, the Canadian government was heavily involved with the churches in the residential schools programme.

Between 1820 and 1969, the Anglican Church of Canada administered 26 Residential Schools, the Roman Catholics administered over 60 and the United and Presbyterian Churches 13 and 3, respectively. The Anglican schools were attended by between 50,000 and 100,000 children.

From the 1960s there was growing unease in al the churches about the residential schools, their practices and the basic philosophy underlying their existence. A report Beyond Traplines commissioned by the Anglican Church resulted in a significant shift in church policy. At the same time the church decided to abandon its partnership with the government and to establish a new partnership with the indigenous peoples.

These policy change was implemented through the 1970s and 1980s, a Co-ordinator for Indigenous Ministries was appointed with a national Council for Indigenous Ministries set up to oversee and give direction to the work.

At the Second Native Convocation of Indigenous Anglicans that met Minaki Lodge in Ontario in 1993, Archbishop Michael Peers issued an apology on behalf of the whole church for the harm done by the residential schools system. It was a public acknowledgement of the sin of racism and ethnic superiority, perpetrated against indigenous people in Canada.

I accept and I confess before God and you, our failures in the residential schools. We failed you. We failed ourselves.

I am sorry, more than I can say, that we were part of system which took you and your children from home and family. I am sorry, more than I can say, that we tried to remake you in our image, taking from you your language and the signs of your identity. I am sorry, more than I can say, that in our schools so many were abused physically, sexually, culturally and emotionally. On behalf of the Anglican Church of Canada, I offer our apology.

This apology was accepted graciously by many indigenous Anglicans. But some have left the Church in anger, and many may be unaware of it.

The case study from the Anglican Church of Canada says "the current plight of indigenous people in Canadian society at the end of this 20th century is a national disgrace. The rates of crime, family violence, alcohol and drug abuse, unemployment and incarceration are way beyond the national average. Communities and families are dysfunctional. People are in despair, they are angry, they are crying for out help. While the roots of today's problems may be the historical policy of assimilation implemented through the residential schools system, the crisis is very much a present crisis of today. The churches and the government have been too slow to respond, and in their frustration, many indigenous people are choosing litigation as the way in which to seek justice and reparation."

But this is painful for all concerned, both plaintiffs and defendants, and this does not lead to reconciliation. Parties are seeking alternatives to litigation, but this requires the painful process of survivors 'telling their stories.' The question of compensation/reparation looms large.

After the Lytton judgement, a statement from the Rev Jim Boyles, General Secretary of the Anglican Church of Canada, noted that "the church's present primary work in relation to Aboriginal persons today id focused on healing and reconciliation. A healing fund was established in 1991. To date it has made more than 40 grants, totaling more than almost $500,000, to assist community-based healing initiatives."

Further information about these matters and any future moves may be obtained from Doug Tindal, Director of Information Resources, Anglican Church of Canada, Ph 416 924 9199 ext 286 or emaildtindal@national.anglican.ca.