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Churches discuss life after residential schools apology

By Carolyn Purden

The mainline churches have all apologized to aboriginal people for the residential schools they ran, but this is only one step on the journey of repentance. What do the churches do now to live out the apology?

The Rev. Andrew Wesley and co-worker Sandra Campbell, of the Toronto Urban Native Ministry, open the workshop "How Can Churches Walk the Talk on Reconciliation?" at the Truth and Reconciliation Intergenerational Regional Gathering, which took place May 31-June 2 in Toronto. Photo by Michael Hudson

This was the question posed to church representatives at one of the workshops at a Truth and Reconciliation Conference, held in Toronto May 31 to June 2.

The Meeting Place: Truth and Reconciliation 2012 Toronto was a community-organized collaboration with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Its goal was to raise public awareness of the intergenerational impact of the schools on survivors, their families and communities.

The three-day conference focused on relationship-building, and one of the many workshops it ran was entitled, “How can churches walk the talk on reconciliation?”

Four church representatives anchored the discussion, with Bishop Philip Poole, area bishop for York-Credit Valley, speaking for Anglicans. The church representatives talked about their denomination’s apologies and how their churches had been affected since. Afterwards, others in the workshop were invited to discuss areas where the churches could do more.

It was evident that the apologies had made a dramatic impact on some of the churches. United Church representative the Rev. Brian McIntosh said that after its 1986 apology, the church’s structure was changed to reflect a greater emphasis on aboriginal relationships and justice. In 1998, the church issued a statement of repentance directed especially to residential school survivors.

Catherine McClusky, speaking for the Presbyterians, said her church’s apology represented a real desire to bring back “human being to human being dialogue.” The church apologized not only for what it had done, she added, but also the things it had left undone.

It is a challenge to live out the apology, she added, but the church is very good at responding at a grassroots level. She concluded,“The church is asking us to make right the things that break the Creator, that break God’s heart.”

Bishop Poole outlined a large number of initiatives that the Anglican Church has taken since its 1993 apology. It has changed the way it enters into international relationships, especially with aboriginal people. It is promoting and building its members’ awareness of the legacy of colonialism, and ensuring Anglican participation at every Truth and Reconciliation hearing across Canada.

The church has also provided historical information about the schools, is working on translating the apology into aboriginal languages, and is providing anti-racism training for all committees and councils at the General Synod level, he said.

Bishop Poole expressed appreciation for the work of the Anglican national aboriginal bishop, Mark MacDonald, adding, “We have much to learn as a national church about becoming more diverse, more engaged, more multicultural.”

Many indigenous people are increasingly experiencing a conflict between their desire to be practising Christians and their need to respect the teaching of their elders, the workshop heard. The church representatives were asked how their churches are responding.

Roman Catholic representative Gerry Kelly talked about the deep harm done to aboriginal communities by the disruption to and banning of their ceremonies by government and churches. He pointed out that people have been harmed, and they have only broken communities to go to.

“Nothing has been so damaging as the disruption of ceremony,” he said, explaining that ceremony is very precious. “Talk helps, ceremony heals,” he explained.

Ms. McClusky pointed out that there could be a natural intersection between aboriginal ceremony and church ritual. As an example, she compared smudging at the entrance to the church with incense inside the church.

Bishop Poole told a story about Christ Church, Bolton. The parish had invited Bishop MacDonald to confirm their young people, but in preparation, the leader of the confirmation class took an unusual step. She based the preparatory teachings on the Anishinaabe Teachings of the Seven Grandfathers, a set of teachings on conduct towards others. “It’s a tiny thing,” he said, “But I bet dollars to doughnuts that the young people confirmed that day will never forget the preparation they had for confirmation,” said Bishop Poole.

Mr. McIntosh said that many in the churches want to help but do not know what to do. He suggested they find a group or organization active in their community and reach out to them, saying they want to learn how to achieve a right relationship.

“Approach with humility and openness,” he advised, “not feeling that we have the answers. Walk side-by-side into a different way of being.”