Dear Friends in Christ,
Earlier this past week, the entire diocesan staff took part in a virtual tour of the Mohawk Institute, an Anglican-run Indian Residential School in Brantford, Ont. that operated between 1831 and 1970. I found it a harrowing experience.
Although we were present only through our computer screens, the experience of “walking” from room to room through the building and hearing the stories of trauma, injustice and child abuse that took place in each area was haunting. The experience will stay with me always. I was particularly moved when I heard how the older boys would encourage the newly arrived younger boys to wrap their arms around the hot water pipes at night in an attempt to find comfort and a substitution for their mothers’ hugs. And viewing first-hand the hand-dug hiding places in the walls was a reminder that the Residential Schools were houses of horrors. We know that at least 97 children died while attending the Mohawk Institute – known as the Mush Hole by its survivors – but currently the Survivors Secretariat is beginning a ground-penetrating radar search of the property to determine the accuracy of that number. It is almost certainly too low.
I encourage you, either as an individual or as part of a small group, to participate in the Woodland Cultural Centre’s tour. It is a powerful and important experience.
On Sept. 30, the Diocese of Toronto will be observing Orange Shirt Day and the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. This solemn day was initiated in 2013 by Residential School survivor Phyllis Webstad. In her own words, Phyllis offers the meaning behind the call to wear orange in recognition of the legacy of Indian Residential Schools: “When I got to the Mission, they stripped me, and took away my clothes, including [my] orange shirt! I never wore it again. I didn’t understand why they wouldn’t give it back to me, it was mine! The colour orange has always reminded me of that and how my feelings didn’t matter, how no one cared and how I felt like I was worth nothing. All of us little children were crying and no one cared.”
I also urge you to wear orange on Sept. 30, in recognition of our Church’s participation in the horrific abuse inflicted on children in these institutions, to raise awareness and to honour all impacted by the Residential School system and legacy.
Data released this week by the Canadian census reveals that over 53% of children in the social service care system are Indigenous. The rates of death for children in care are shockingly high. When we acknowledge Orange Shirt Day, we recognize that the Residential School system perpetrated harms that continue to this day through intergenerational trauma. We recognize that though the last Residential School closed in 1998, their shadow of grief and loss continues to have a devastating impact on entire families and communities, and on our common life together in Canada.
Our Diocese is committed to fulfilling Call to Action #59 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the Rev. Leigh Kern, our Right Relations Coordinator, has also organized two upcoming Tuesday evening Zoom sessions where we can learn from Indigenous leaders:
- Sept. 27 at 7 p.m. – Jillian Harris, former Chief of the Penelakut Tribe, will discuss hidden histories of colonialism
- Oct. 11 at 7 p.m. – Deborah Tagornak, Inuk author, will speak about Inuit Principles and Societal Values: Empowering Capable Human Beings
On our diocesan website you can find links to Indigenous-run organizations that could use your support. You will also find liturgical resources and prayers for you to use in observing Orange Shirt Day and National Day for Truth and Reconciliation. The prayers are now available in English, Mandarin, Japanese, Cantonese and Tamil, thanks to the Bishop’s Collaborative for Right Relations.
Engaging with this history can be painful, and participating in these educational opportunities is not easy. But it is only when we confront the heart-breaking facts of our past, hidden and denied for far too long, that we can demonstrate our commitment to deepening the journey into truth going forward. Let us be transformed as a diocese, strengthened in our resolve to build new relationships through acts of repentance and reconciliation. Every Child Matters, for each one is a beloved child of God.
Yours in Christ,
The Rt. Rev. Andrew Asbil
Bishop of Toronto