Archbishop Fred Hiltz (middle) joins the "Survivor Walk and Procession" at the Quebec National Event in Montreal, April 24. Photo: Marites N. Sison
The primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, who attended the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s (TRC) Quebec national event here, said the message he keeps hearing is that “education plays a critical role” in making sure that all Canadians not only know about the history of the schools, but that they take part in the process of reconciliation between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people.
With the growing awareness that the TRC’s term will end in 2014, Hiltz said people have been asking, “What do we do with all the truths? Who will pick up this mandate and how will it be different?” This challenge is not just for the government or churches to pick up, but for all Canadians, said Hiltz.
The Anglican church, which operated over 30 residential schools, has a key role to play in helping make sure that its history and impacts on aboriginal people are known, said Hiltz in an interview. “It was in the name of education that this policy of assimilation came about. It was this process of educating people that sparked this horrific legacy,” he said. “In terms of trying to undo that, of turning it around…We’ve got to be committed to this call to educate all Canadians about [it].”
But first, he said, the church must educate from within. “I think we have to start with ourselves because our own people do not know the story,” said Hiltz, adding that there are also others who have expressed impatience about the matter. “Sometimes I hear our people say, ‘We’re tired of this. Why don’t you just get on with your lives? We’ve said we’re sorry. We’ve honoured the settlement agreement…’ ”
How does one overcome impatience and indifference? “You overcome by persevering. We persevere in saying, ‘This is our story, we were part of this and we must take responsibility for it,” said Hiltz. “For me to sit here at this national event is for me to say I am sorry every day. Every day I listen to stories, I see films and I hang my head in shame for what happened.”
For more than 150 years, about 180,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children were removed from their homes and sent to federally funded schools managed by Anglican, Catholic, Presbyterian and United churches. There were students who suffered physical, emotional and sexual abuse in these schools.
Hiltz said that the residential schools story needs to be told “in the context of an understanding of mission, of what is evangelism really about and what is reconciliation,” said Hiltz.
The people whom the church is training for leadership, whether ordained or lay, have to know the story. “It’s part of our history as a church. We have to acknowledge it. We have to learn it. We have to come a real understanding of what is the nature of reconciliation.”
It is only by grappling with the schools’ legacy and placing it “in the midst of our own story” that the church will have greater integrity in pushing and calling on ministers of education across the country to make sure that their curriculum includes this history of assimilation through residential schools, said Hiltz. Until the history and legacy of residential schools gets into the curriculum of all schools in Canada, “it’s always going to remain misunderstood,” he added.
The primate said he was encouraged to see more non-aboriginal people in attendance at the Quebec event, especially young families with children, university students, and government representatives.
Hiltz, who has attended all five national events hosted by the TRC, said that he has also heard at the Quebec event “a real kind of yearning to get on with reconciliation.” Several people have asked, “Now that we’ve heard the truths, what’s our plan as a country?”
For the church, the task is to continue its commitment to healing and reconciliation, “on the ground, in communities where people are struggling day to day to reclaim their lives, their dignity as human beings,” said Hiltz.
Reconciliation is a long process that requires “a lot of patience, a lot of prayer and a lot of perseverance,” said Hiltz. “We cannot rush reconciliation because…it will be shallow. It’s got to be a beautiful thing that God intends it to be.”
Reconciliation is a journey that begins with hearing the truth, explained Hiltz. “It requires some humility to hear the truth, to reverence the truth and to hold it as something sacred,” he said. The next step is to apologize “with as much integrity as we can…to be patient enough to wait for them to say, ‘we accept your apology.’ ”
And in between the speaking and accepting of the apology, “there has to be some signs on our part that we’re sincere about this, that we need to know our need to change,” said Hiltz. It has to be followed by mutual conversation about how aboriginal and non-aboriginal people can walk together “in a different way, in ways that we honour the Creator, that honour the dignity that God has given each of us,” said Hiltz. These conversations will inevitably revolve around issues of justice, he added. “Why isn’t there money for adequate health care in aboriginal communities? Why isn’t there clean water? Why is there less funding for education…? Together, you work to address them.”
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Marites N. Sison is editor of the Anglican Journal.
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