How times have changed in the 25 years since former primate Michael Peers offered his apology to Canada’s Indigenous peoples on behalf of the Anglican Church of Canada.
On Aug. 6, 1993 in Minaki, northern Ont., Archbishop Peers offered a well-articulated, humble and deeply felt expression of regret. He did so without any notes. He wanted to share his thoughts personally and directly.
The next day, Vi Smith, speaking on behalf of the Indigenous elders and other participants at the event, responded by saying: “On behalf of this gathering, we acknowledge and accept the apology that the primate has offered…It was offered from his heart with sincerity, sensitivity, compassion and humility. We receive it in the same manner.”
In terms of profound human encounter, how can formal apologies hope to mean something? When institutions apologize through their spokespersons, how can that apology be made authentically? What does it mean when a church apologizes to a representative and wronged group of people?
At the time, I had struggled with those hard questions and wrote that true apology must go beyond words toward deeds that are dedicated to healing and reconciliation. Even more, those saying “sorry” must begin learning how to change their behaviour through listening, and by accepting and implementing the witness received. In other words, start a reciprocal process of restoration instigated by the victim. This would mean a total reversal of former behaviour and indication of a common change of heart.
I cherish, to this day, my exchanges with Michael Peers at that time. He sincerely hoped that he would not only apologize well, but follow that up with deeds of true penitence that would have long-term impact.
In Canada, during the past quarter-century, there have been positive signs that this is starting to occur. Increasingly, mutual healing is happening between our citizens. The Anglican Journal has reported many of these stories.
Much more needs to be done, of course, but I would like to report briefly on two experiences I’ve had that suggest progress is being made.
The McDougall Stoney Mission Society is an association that exists to tell the story of the historic encounter of early west Methodist missionaries and the Stoney First Nation of southern Alberta.
I participate in the planning of two commemorative services on the mission site each spring and summer. Usually, we depend on non-Native clergy and laity to lead these services. Recently, however, the son of a Stoney chief stepped forward and took over the leadership, with the help of a number of his relatives and friends. History was made, and a powerful celebration of the rejoining of our two traditions was recognized.
That evening, we attended, at Theatre Calgary, the world premiere of Honour Beat, a new play with an all-Indigenous cast by Tara Beagan, who is of part Ntlaka’pamux and part Irish ancestry. The drama told an Indigenous story of human resilience and family love, using modern technology to recreate flashbacks to traumatic scenes of a residential school, experienced by a dying grandmother.
Both recent experiences exposed me to the dramatic emergence of Indigenous leadership in contemporary worship and the arts. While they are not the first such breakthroughs I have experienced, they are poignant examples of how our Canadian society is changing, and how majority cultures are learning much as a result of Indigenous initiatives. Archbishop Peers will be pleased!
Note: Corrections have been made to this article. Playwright Tara Beagan is of part Ntlaka’pamux and part Irish ancestry, not Métis, and the cast of Honour Beat is entirely, not partly, Indigenous.