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'Our apology hasn't been empty'

By Marites N. Sison on March, 25 2014

"There have been so many people over the years who have worked really hard to establish good relationships between indigenous and non-indigenous people,” says Anglican Healing Fund co-ordinator Esther Wesley. "Our [church] apology hasn’t been empty.” Photo: Marites N. Sison 


Over time, in so many different places and at different times, Anglican Healing Fund co-ordinator Esther Wesley kept hearing people refer to “apologies, empty apologies” whenever they talked about issues related to the sad legacy of Indian residential schools in Canada.

During a recent conference call, when someone again used the phrase “empty apologies” and added, “i.e., the government,” Wesley wondered: “Does that include us?” The Anglican Church of Canada and other churches had apologized, after all, ahead of the federal government, for the harms inflicted by the system in which more than 150,000 aboriginal children were removed from their homes and sent to residential schools across the country. The Anglican church operated over 30 of these schools across Canada, and many former students have reported sexual, physical and emotional abuse.

What Wesley heard bothered her. “We can’t keep going like this. We just can’t, because there have been so many people over the years who have worked really hard” to establish good relationships between indigenous and non-indigenous people,” she thought. “Our apology hasn’t been empty.”

Wesley thought of people within the Anglican Church of Canada—indigenous and non-indigenous—who worked quietly behind the scenes to change what had been, for many centuries, an unjust and unequal relationship. She also thought of how the church has offered close to $6 million for projects that promote healing and reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous Anglicans.

And yet, judging from the “empty apologies” remark, Wesley realized many people were unaware of what the church has been doing to atone for the past. Clearly, something had to be done.

Names and events came to mind, and Wesley thought of a timeline poster that would trace the evolution of the relationship between indigenous people and the Anglican church in Canada. The Healing Fund had published timeline posters about the history of residential schools, and these were always popular at Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) events: the posters were handy, easy to read and would often elicit discussions.

With approval and support from the primate, Archbishop Fred Hiltz, and the general secretary, Archdeacon Michael Thompson, the “Timeline of an evolving relationship” was produced. A copy will presented by the primate as a gesture of reconciliation at the last TRC national event in Edmonton, March 27 to 30.

Wesley—with help from Nancy Hurn (General Synod archivist), John Bird (former General Synod staff, now special assistant to the primate on residential schools), Henriette Thompson (director, public witness for social & ecological justice), Saskia Rowley (Anglican Journal art director/General Synod graphics and print production manager) and Janet Thomas (communications department)—produced the timeline.

The timeline “really is to honour those who have worked hard in creating these new relationships,” said Wesley. Certain people stood out and they were invited to cite what they considered to be highlights in the indigenous and non-indigenous Anglican relationship: Chris Hiller (former indigenous justice co-ordinator), Ellie Johnson (former director of the partnerships department), Donna Bomberry (former indigenous ministries co-ordinator), the Rev. Canon Laverne Jacobs (former indigenous ministries co-ordinator), National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald, and Bird.

Comprehensive and laden with powerful images, text, quotes and graphics, the timeline begins with a brief background about the arrival of Anglicans on Turtle Island (now known as North America) in the 1400s and how they brought not only their Bibles but their beliefs of superiority known as the Doctrine of Discovery. The doctrine, which the Anglican church eventually repudiated in 2010, decreed that “non-Christian nations have no rights to their land and sovereignty…” The doctrine continues to underpin “many national laws and policies in the nation states that have emerged from the European colonial process,” and is still cited by courts in Canada, the United States, Australia and New Zealand “to justify rule over indigenous lands,” said the timeline.

Key moments and turning points in the church’s history with indigenous people— both good and bad—are highlighted. One reads, for instance, about the establishment of the first Anglican residential school (1828), and over 30 years later, the start of training and support for indigenous ministries along the Yukon River by the Rev. Robert McDonald (1862). 

The year 1967 marked a change in the relationship, stated the timeline, citing how the church would, over the years, pass hundreds of resolutions supporting indigenous struggles for recognition of traditional land rights, treaty implementation and consultations. The turning point, said Wesley, came with the publication in 1969 of Beyond Traplines, a report prepared by sociologist Charles Hendry, who was commissioned by the church to examine its relationship with aboriginal peoples. Hendry, whose report included first-hand accounts by former residential school students, urged the Anglican church to develop a new partnership with indigenous peoples based on “solidarity, equality and mutual respect.”

Changes would not come fast, however, and the timeline illustrates how, in many instances, they came as a result of the actions of people—both indigenous and non-indigenous within the church—and not the institution itself, said Wesley.

For Hurn, the timeline allows Canadian Anglicans to “think and look at the joint journey.” It is also a chance to recognize “the indigenous people who have worked in the Anglican church over time to bring the good news to their people in spite of many things—the Doctrine of Discovery, the residential schools.”

Hurn echoed Wesley’s assessment that “there isn’t much known about what we’ve been able to do together over time.” The growth of the relationship “doesn’t make up for what was done in the residential schools,” she added, “but it’s still an important piece of it.”

In Hurn’s opinion, the timeline’s underlying message is this: “Before we can move forward in reconciliation, we have to understand our shared history.”  

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By Marites N. Sison | March, 25 2014

About the Author

Marites N. Sison

Marites N. Sison

Marites N. Sison is editor of the Anglican Journal. 

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