Residential schools—beginning a process of repentance and healing

“Most non-native Anglicans have never heard aboriginal people describing their experiences in the residential schools,” says John Bird. “The more you hear, the more you are struck by the pain and horror that system has produced.” Mr. Bird was recently appointed, together with Shirley Harding, to job-share a two-year term position as Special Assistants to the Primate on Residential Schools.

“Not every former student’s story is painful,” Mr. Bird admits, “but many, many are. It hurts to hear that your own church and your own society have been so destructive.” He emphasizes that hearing the stories is “a first step in a process of repentance and healing we hope will lead to a new relationship between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people.”

During a period of more than 100 years, ending in 1969, the Anglican Church administered a total of 25 residential schools. Generations of native children were taken from their communities to schools that may have been hundreds of miles away, and inculcated with the values and language of an alien culture. By the time they came home again many of the students had lost their own languages and cultures, and family relationships had been seriously disrupted.

The Christian churches worked with the rest of dominant society to reinforce and provide theological underpinnings for the schools, which were a key tool in a supposedly benevolent process of “Christianizing and civilizing” people many Europeans viewed as “savages.”

The Anglican Church of Canada’s National Executive Council decided in 1991 to commit resources and staff time towards “reconciliation and healing” around the residential schools issue after it heard some of the history and stories in a presentation organized by the church’s Council for Native Ministries (all of whose members are aboriginal people). The church formed a Residential Schools Working Group, and set aside $250,000 to support healing initiatives taken in the aboriginal communities themselves.

One of the working group’s first steps has been to commission a video in which some of the people involved in the residential school system — both former students and former staff — can tell their stories. That video will premier at synod during a public hearing. It will then be made available to the rest of the church along with a study guide to help people deal with the stories they hear on the video.

Several members of the Residential Schools Working Group will participate in the General Synod hearing, including Gladys Cook, a Dakota Sioux elder and a survivor of abuse at the Anglican residential school in Elkhorn, Manitoba. The hearing will provide a brief overview of the church’s history with residential schools and a chance for synod members to share personal responses to the stories, as well as feed their concerns back to the working group.

“Neither the church nor Canadian society have been willing to listen to the aboriginal peoples,” says Mr. Bird. “The result has been untold damage to nations, communities, families and individuals.” Much of the present substance abuse and social breakdown in aboriginal communities can be traced to the legacy of the residential schools.”

Former staff at the schools also need to be part of the healing and reconciliation process. Many went to work at the schools with the best of intentions and for near-volunteer wages. Now they are feeling deserted by their church.

“We need to be clear,” says Mr. Bird, “that except for individual cases of physical or sexual abuse, the whole church and the whole society must take responsibility for what these schools did. Even the sexual abuse wouldn’t have happened outside the context of a system that removed children from their families and communities and put them into the hands of strangers who held absolute power over their lives.”

“The key to any healing,” he adds, “will be for non-native Anglicans to learn to listen with their hearts and to respond from their hearts. There will be successes and there will be failures, but we are committed to trying our best.”

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