Healing and reconciliation—the church faces the legacy of residential schools

May 27, 1992 — Whose job is it to deal with the negative effects of church-run residential schools?

The schools were common until about 1970. Whole generations of native young people were separated from their families and communities, sometimes for years at a time. One major legacy of the residential school system is the social and family breakdown that is now evident in many aboriginal communities. Stories of abuse — physical, emotional and sexual – have also emerged from the schools to shock and challenge leaders of the churches responsible for their administration.

The Anglican Church of Canada has taken several steps to respond to issues raised by the native people affected by the 25 residential schools the church operated. Some of these actions have been controversial. Recently the Anglican Church announced the appointment of two people, neither of whom is native, to share the position of Special Assistant to the Primate on Residential Schools. Some people have wondered if the church is repeating past mistakes — making decisions about native people without consulting them.

The Reverend Laverne Jacobs says that is not the case. Mr. Jacobs is the church’s national co-ordinator for native ministries, and a member of the Walpole Island First Nation. He explains that the Council for Native Ministries (CNM), the national committee composed entirely of aboriginal people that guides the church’s response to native issues, felt strongly that “it would be unfair to ask native people to take responsibility for cleaning up a mess they had no part in making. The residential schools were imposed on native people by the dominant society,” he explains, “and the main issue is for the church to come to understand that the system was wrong. That’s not the native people’s job.”

CNM suggested the position should be open only to non-native applicants. Other church leaders, both native and non-native, argued that only a native person could truly understand the issues. In the end, the job was advertised openly and the decision left to a selection committee on which three of the five members were native people. This committee decided to examine all applications without prejudice, seeking the best candidates for the job.

The two-year contract position has been awarded to Shirley Harding, a former national consultant on youth ministry for the church, and John Bird, past editor of Anglican Magazine. They will support the Residential Schools Working Group in helping the church respond to native people who were affected by the schools. The ultimate aim of the work is “reconciliation and healing.”

They will also work with Anglican dioceses, particularly in areas where the residential schools were situated, to help the church understand and take responsibility for its past, and to move forward into a new relationship with native people. Some funding has been set aside by the church to support programs initiated by native people to deal with the aftermath of the schools.

Anglican Primate, Archbishop Michael Peers, notes that some people have been skeptical of the church’s intentions. “I think they are right to be skeptical,” he says, “but I hope our work will persuade them otherwise.”

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