For National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald, participating in the national events of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) has been “a strange mixture of Good Friday and Easter.”
It has been “very painful, very challenging” to witness how the 150-year legacy of residential schools has affected former students and their families, but MacDonald says he has also seen “resilience, hope and the idea that we have reached a point from which we can’t turn back.”
What Chief Dr. Robert Joseph, hereditary chief of the Gwawaenuk First Nation whispered to him in 2010, at the first TRC national event in Winnipeg, has been ringing in his ears, says MacDonald: “We’re going to make it.”
Archbishop Terry Finlay, the primate’s special representative on residential schools, describes his experience of having attended these events as “painful, challenging, truth-revealing, humbling and unsettling,” but also one that has contributed to his own spiritual life.
General Synod archivist Nancy Hurn, who has been to all TRC regional and national events, says she is feeling “a little bit sad” that these events are coming to an end, but is hoping that there will be other opportunities for the Anglican Church of Canada to share its residential schools-related materials.
The last of seven TRC national events will be held in Edmonton, March 27 to 30.
A key component of the 2007 revised Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, part of the TRC’s mandate is to gather the statements of former residential school students and others affected by the schools and to educate Canadians about the impact of the residential school system. The TRC’s ultimate goal, “is to lay the groundwork that will help us to close the divide between aboriginal people and the rest of Canadians,” TRC chair Justice Murray Sinclair has repeatedly stated. From the mid-19th to the 20th century, churches—including the Anglican Church of Canada—operated 130 schools for more than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children as part of the Canadian government’s forced assimilation policy.
“I think the TRC has really given a voice, a face and a presence to a very, very painful and unjust period of time in our Canadian history,” said Finlay.
TRC events have had the effect of “raising consciousness and healing of all people, especially the survivors,” says MacDonald. He adds that there has been a growing understanding among non-indigenous Canadians that healing needs to happen not just among former students and their families but in all of Canada.
MacDonald says he was impressed by church involvement and participation at events, which grew “in terms of numbers and quality” at each event. “We have a long ways to go, but it has been steady growth.”
Finlay says church participation at the local level was mixed, starting slowly in some provinces and taking off quickly in others. “It is a painful story and therefore sometimes we find it hard to accept it and to recognize that perhaps people we knew personally were part of that painful story,” he says. However, “gradually we have become more and more aware of the history and the tremendous journey that we’ve had with our indigenous Anglicans and I think that’s good.”
The full participation of former residential schools staff at the events is something that both MacDonald and Anglican Healing Fund co-ordinator Esther Wesley wish had happened, but they acknowledge that it wouldn’t have been without risks. While some staff joined the events, most stayed within the confines of the churches’ listening area; one or two gave public testimonies to TRC commissioners, but were met with open hostility and weeping by some former students in the audience. “It would have been very good if more staff at the schools had been able to participate, but for various reasons, they felt afraid and intimidated,” says MacDonald. “It would have been very good to get the larger picture.”
The church could facilitate a process “in which we gave proper due to [staff] who worked there and many worked courageously and sacrificially and displayed kindness,” says MacDonald. “Churches are probably the safest place for that kind of dialogue to happen.”
Hurn, meanwhile, would like to see the church’s “frontline archives work” to continue; she was astonished at the impact that the residential schools-related photographs, drawings, memorabilia and documents, which church archivists shared at TRC events, have had on former students and their families. General Synod Archives and the Anglican Healing Fund have shared exhibit space, which has been popular with former students, their families and the general public.
“It’s something I’ve enjoyed so much—that people would take us into their confidence to describe their experience and also share their incredible stories of their time at the schools, some very sad, some very funny,” Hurn says. “There’s been a discussion about the healing value of records, and I’ve seen that in a very firsthand way as part of the TRC event.”
Seeing the historical data gives people context for their experiences at the schools, says Hurn. “People feel free to discuss their past when they see themselves in photos. There’s always lots of laughter [and] sometimes, tears, if people see a family member from the past.”
In many ways, Hurn and Wesley have been the face of the Anglican Church of Canada at these events. “Our whole role, in my view,” Hurn says, “is to help the survivors understand their experience of the residential school by giving them some basic information and also by acknowledging what the pain and suffering was for them…”
Photographs and scrapbooks of student’s artwork donated by former staff to the archives have been “incredibly valuable” to former students and their families, adds Hurn. They demonstrate that the teacher or staff “has valued them, their presence at the schools so much that they would keep track of them in this way.” While this doesn’t make up for some of the abuses that took place at the schools, Hurn says these mementoes are still “a blessing.”
On a personal level, Finlay says he has been “moved by the way in which indigenous people continue to offer a hand of reconciliation even in the midst of pain, the abuse and the injustice they experienced, and their tremendous humour in all of these.”
Hurn recalls many moving moments at the TRC events, but one, in Victoria, B.C., stands out. “We were in the longhouse and this woman had seen the photographs earlier in the day and she came across the floor with a feather in her hand and gave it to me and said, ?Thank you for your work.’ ”
The end of TRC events do not mean that the work of healing and reconciliation will stop, say Wesley, MacDonald, Finlay and Hurn.
On a practical level, Wesley says both government and churches need to have a plan in place for dealing with the aftermath of these events in communities. The reopening of wounds have been healing for some but devastating for others, she says, citing how one participant she knew, who had been sober for 25 years, fell off the wagon after he attended a TRC event that triggered memories of his horrific past at the schools.
Hurn is looking ahead to how the National Research Centre, which the TRC has to establish before the end of its term in 2015, will unfold and what the churches’ role will be.
Churches and indigenous organizations are looking at what happens next, says MacDonald. “I’m gratified to see that there’s a real sense of going deeper into issues, into the healing and into the communion between indigenous people, the rest of fellow church members and in the larger society.”
The TRC has “only opened the door and now, there’s much work to be done,” adds Finlay. “The indigenous people are discovering their own self-determinism and their own way forward, and we as Canadians, together, have got to continue the journey with them that, in some ways, the TRC has started effectively.”
The Anglican Church of Canada, he adds, has been on a long journey with indigenous Anglicans “even before the primate’s apology in 1993,” adds Finlay. He cites the creation by the primate of a commission that will examine the issue of reconciliation and the church’s repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery as another step in that journey.