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Church prepares for truth commission

By Art Babych and Marites N. Sison, staff writer on January, 02 2008


Ellie Johnson briefs the Council of General Synod about the revised Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.


An ecumenical “leaders’ tour” is being planned this spring in five Canadian cities to generate support and awareness for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which the federal government is forming as part of the revised Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. 

Anglican, Roman Catholic, United, and Presbyterian leader will team with aboriginal leaders at gatherings in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Toronto and possibly Calgary that will begin a dialogue about “what the (commission) is and why we need it,” said Ellie Johnson, the Anglican church’s representative on the schools settlement portfolio.

Ms. Johnson told members of the Council of General Synod (CoGS) at their fall meeting that the ecumenical tour is intended to help generate interest about the commission among congregations and the Canadian public. “How do we get Canada interested in this?” asked Ms. Johnson. “It’s supposed to set the historical record straight in our country as well as set up an appropriate place for people to tell their stories. We know the broad outlines (about the legacy of the residential schools) and I feel we have a responsibility that other people know about it. It’s our common heritage.”

Meanwhile, in Ottawa, at a forum, the question of whether non-aboriginals can handle the truth about the abuses that happened in Canada’s Indian residential schools was raised by Robert Watts, the interim director of the commission.

One of the factors affecting healing and reconciliation between former residential school students and the rest of the country will be the “receptivity of the country to the truth,” said Mr. Watts, the former chief of staff to Phil Fontaine, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. “We can have all the truth in the world, but if people aren’t listening … in terms of building for the future, we will miss an opportunity.”

He was speaking at a Nov. 19 event that included Bishop Mark MacDonald, the Anglican Church of Canada’s first national indigenous bishop. The event, titled, “Confronting our Aboriginal History: Towards Healing and Reconciliation,” was held at the Church of St. John the Evangelist, and was organized by the parish’s Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund committee.

Mr. Watts and his staff are seeking members to serve on the commission, which is to be an independent body appointed by a government order-in-council. A selection panel is sifting through more than 300 applications from across Canada, and was expected to come up with a short list for the position of chairperson and two commission members by early 2008.  

During its five-year term, the commission’s duties will include hosting seven national events across the country to hear from residential school survivors, churches, and government. “We want to hear the voices of the people who were involved in the residential schools to help create an accurate history of residential schools,” said Mr. Watts.

Bishop MacDonald said he views the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as “an opportunity for us to acknowledge the truth.” He also drew on words of aboriginal elders when asked what parishes can do to help in the healing and reconciliation process. “Walk with us,” is what the elders would say, said the bishop. “At a very simple level, that’s a very profound thing to say … but consider for a moment that in North America, First Nations peoples have volunteered and died (in wars) at a higher rate than any ethnic group. The rates both increase in every war that’s been fought. First Nations people have known how to walk, sacrificially, with the rest of Canada on so many issues and have paid a price so dear in so many ways,” he said.

Ms. Johnson also told CoGS that the archives staff of the national church scoured 120,000 pages of various documents looking for names of former students of the native residential schools to help fill the gaps in government records. The archives found about 3,300 names which have been photocopied and sent to the federal government to help former students avail of the Common Experience Payment provided under the settlement agreement. Proof of attendance at these schools is required of each student. “There have been individuals with no records but this reference validated their claim. It’s worth the work,” said Ms. Johnson. She added that the archives has about 2,200 photos showing former students, but only 20 per cent have names attached to them.

General Synod archivist Nancy Hurn also met recently with diocesan archivists to plan how parish registries can be used to gather information on former students who died while in the residential schools, said Ms. Johnson. A committee within the commission has been created to research former students who died while in residential schools.

Art Babych is editor of CrossTalk, the newspaper of the diocese of Ottawa.

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January, 02 2008
Categories:  National News

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