"Iron" Indigenous leader put relationships first

The June 16 retirement party for Donna Bomberry, Indigenous Ministries coordinator, was a family affair. Two large dream catchers, made by her mother Doris, hung above the crowd. Granddaughter Sophia, 3, ran, giggled, and cut the cake with a spoon. General Synod staff members—past and present—rose to pay tribute to the tall Cayuga woman who played a critical role in birthing a self-determining Indigenous church.

Donna Bomberry at a 1996 service commemorating the landing of the Mohawks, Tyendinaga, Ont.
Donna Bomberry at a 1996 service commemorating the landing of the Mohawks, Tyendinaga, Ont.

“Always remember that we’re in relationship,” said Ms. Bomberry, when asked to share her wisdom as an elder of Indigenous Ministries. “We’re restoring our families and our communities in a spiritual way.”

It’s been a long road of improving relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Peoples in the Anglican Church of Canada. When Donna Bomberry first walked onto the national church scene as a volunteer in 1985, her job was to ask how Anglican programs involved Indigenous Peoples. She was the only Indigenous person on a volunteer committee of 60. One weekend she listened to 75 project reports and not one person could explain how their work was relevant to Indigenous communities.

Twenty-six years later, Ms. Bomberry has witnessed progress. In 1993, then-Primate Archbishop Michael Peers made a public apology for Indian residential schools. In 1994, the church signed a covenant with Indigenous leaders to walk together in partnership. Now, nudged along by leaders like Ms. Bomberry, the church is transforming its deepest governance structures to integrate Indigenous leadership. Canadians are beginning to glimpse what a truly Indigenous, truly Anglican church might look like.

“A self-determining Indigenous church will soon be something that everybody takes for granted,” said Bishop Mark MacDonald, who in 2007 became the first National Indigenous Anglican Bishop. “But it is something that just even 10 years ago was unimaginable.”

Indigenous and Anglican
Being both Indigenous and Anglican is a challenging equation, one that the young Ms. Bomberry tackled personally in her 20s. She grew up off reserve in Beamsville, Ont., in a devout Anglican family with Cayuga, Tuscarora, and Ojibwe roots. She said her family offered mixed messages about the value of being Indigenous.

To sort out her heritage, Ms. Bomberry joined youth programs at the Six Nations reserve near Brantford, Ont. A teacher named Sharon VanEvery took Ms. Bomberry and others under her wing, driving them around Ontario to meet elders and learn traditional ways. Many of this group went on to become leaders, including Roberta Jamieson, CEO of the Aboriginal Achievement Foundation.

This exposure also shaped Ms. Bomberry. She immersed herself in traditional culture and eventually married an Indigenous man who taught her drumming, singing, and dancing. Together they toured the pow-wow circuit and taught traditional arts to urban Aboriginals in the Niagara region. During this time she left the church.

But tragedy caused her life to take a U-turn. In 1977, her father died. Then in 1979, her husband died. Ms. Bomberry and her five-year-old son, Lincoln, moved back in with her mother and she found spiritual solace at St. Alban’s again. She joined the altar guild, became a lay reader and taught Sunday school.

She also brought her own gifts, introducing the non-Indigenous congregation to smudging, sweetgrass, and the celebration of National Aboriginal Day.

“It just seemed a natural progression for me,” said Ms. Bomberry.

Focused on leadership development
At the time, Ms. Bomberry was working for the federal government, but spent many vacation days volunteering for the church, first at the diocese, and then eventually for General Synod, where she chaired the Council for Native Ministries, predecessor to the Anglican Council of Indigenous Peoples (ACIP).

She joined General Synod staff in 1994, first as part-time Canadian development coordinator for the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund, then became Indigenous Ministries coordinator in 1996, where her work focused on Indigenous leadership development.

In the 1990s, this work was especially hard. Though Indigenous Anglicans had clarified their vision in the 1994 Covenant, stories of residential schools dominated the day.

Ms. Bomberry focused on offering education and support. She helped negotiate healing and reconciliation funds for those abused by Anglican priest Ralph Rowe in northern Ontario. In 1998, she supported a Sacred Walk by Bishop Gordon Beardy—the first diocesan Indigenous bishop—as he and a team walked from Sioux Lookout in northern Ontario to Ottawa to raise awareness about the residential school experience.

Meanwhile, General Synod became embroiled in residential school litigation and faced bankruptcy. Ms. Bomberry kept her focus on Indigenous leaders and stood with ACIP as they sought revision for the residential school settlement agreement—even as a bishop was calling for her to be fired. The agreement was signed in 2005, withoutACIP’s approval, and although disappointed, Ms. Bomberry continued her work.

It was sometime during this era that Bishop Beardy gave her the nickname “lady with an iron fist.” In 2004, her integrity earned her the Order of Niagara.

Once the settlement ensured the church’s survival, Ms. Bomberry helped Indigenous leaders focus again on self-determination. In 2007, National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald was appointed. Since then, two Indigenous area missions have emerged, one in Northern Manitoba and one in Northern Ontario, already led by an Indigenous bishop, the Right Rev. Lydia Mamakwa. More are in development.

At General Synod 2010, Canadian Anglicans affirmed this direction by providing canonical recognition for the Anglican Council of Indigenous Peoples, Sacred Circle, and the National Indigenous Anglican Bishop. This lays the legal groundwork for a self-determining, Indigenous church.

Ms. Bomberry was a key participant in advancing this work. Along with Bishop MacDonald and colleague Teresa Mandricks, she supported these conversations about self-determination across Canada, often working through conflict.

“Part of the uniqueness of her achievement is that she did it while involving everybody else,” said Bishop MacDonald. “It’s difficult to be a strong and determined person but to make sure that everybody else is walking with you and that you’re all walking together.”

A faithful relative
Now 60, Ms. Bomberry has taken early retirement to renew relationships with her family. She returns to Beamsville to care for her elderly mother and help raise her granddaughter. In one way, it’s a return to the familiar. Ms. Bomberry is back at St. Alban’s, where she’s already been signed up for the altar guild and the lay reader roster.

Yet she’s still on the go. Ms. Bomberry will continue international travel and coordination as Secretary General of the Anglican Indigenous Network, a post to which she was appointed in 2009. She also plans to buy a yellow Vespa for zipping around Beamsville. It will match her yellow Jeep.

Bishop MacDonald said he admires how Donna “worked in a bureaucracy but never became bureaucratized.” He said she was a faithful relative not only to her own family but to those in the extended Indigenous Ministries family.

“She is living out the values that she wanted to see the church embrace,” said Bishop MacDonald. “She’s the whole package.”


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