The bishop of British Columbia and the chief of the ‘Namgis First Nation are hoping a meeting last month will prove the crucial first step in a long and fruitful relationship.
“I think this is the beginning of many more conversations to come. We really appreciate the church reaching out and starting the conversation,” Debra Hanuse, chief of the ‘Namgis First Nation, said of the weekend meeting March 24-25.“There are limitless possibilities that could come out of this.”
Bishop Logan McMenamie, along with 18 members of the diocese’s executive council, travelled north from Victoria to Alert Bay, a village on Cormorant Island, a short ferry ride from Vancouver Island. Cormorant Island is home to two reserves of the ‘Namgis First Nation, whose territory includes parts of northern Vancouver Island and a number of nearby smaller islands. It is also home to the ‘Namgis Big House, an important gathering place for the community; and the U’mista Cultural Centre, a museum that houses a collection of artifacts confiscated by the Canadian government during a raid on a potlatch in 1921. (Potlatches, traditional gift-giving ceremonies of some West Coast Indigenous peoples, were banned in Canada—partly as a result of pressure from missionaries, including Anglican missionary William Duncan—from 1884 to 1951.)
Alert Bay was also the site of St. Michael’s Indian Residential School, the largest Anglican-run residential school in Canada. More than 9,000 First Nations children attended the school, which operated from 1929 to 1975.
The delegation from the diocese met with Hanuse and members of the ‘Namgis council for dinner on both evenings. On Friday, March 24, hosts and guests introduced themselves to one another, and Hanuse gave a talk on reconciliation. A celebration of Evensong followed. On the following day, the diocesan council met to deal with business in the morning and afternoon. That evening, they met more ‘Namgis council members and elders—including former St. Michael’s students—and heard their stories, McMenamie says. The weekend concluded with a service at the Anglican church in Alert Bay the next day.
The purposes of the trip, McMenamie says, were to allow the diocesan council to experience a remote parish and First Nations community first-hand and to start building relationships with the people of that community—an important first step, he says, in the diocese’s process of Indigenous-non-Indigenous reconciliation.
“This stuff begins with relationships and hearing stories,” he says. “Number one is truth-telling. So we say, ‘We were here, we did this, we were part of a government system that tried to…wipe out culture, language and people.’ What does healing look like, after we have that honest conversation?”
The community’s response, the bishop says, was very encouraging. “I heard from the ‘Namgis people that they are committed to that journey.”
One of the most important aspects of the trip, he says, was for diocesan council to experience what he calls the “spirituality of presence” of Cormorant Island, which seems to radiate a sense of the sacred.
“Cormorant Island…is our holy island,” he says.
Hanuse says she and the First Nation’s council were glad to have the opportunity to express what reconciliation means to them. “We had an exchange of ideas, and I think the key when you’re talking about reconciliation is, it’s a very complex concept and if you’re not on the same page and talking about it in different contexts, then it won’t be a productive conversation.” For that reason, she says, her presentation focused on these different contexts—legal, political, social, economic, individual and societal.
On individual and societal levels, Hanuse says, reconciliation is about “forgiveness, healing, understanding and restored relations.” In Canadian legal texts, however, reconciliation means sorting out Aboriginal and Crown titles and jurisdictions through treaties and other legal means.
Partnerships with other organizations—including faith groups—have at times significantly helped Indigenous communities address the harm done by colonization, she says. For example, the alliance of Indigenous groups with the Religious Society of Friends—the Quakers—has been instrumental in the development of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and its adoption by governments, she says.
“Reconciliation is not an event—it’s a journey,” she says. “The journey has many, many steps ahead of us, but we’re so appreciative of the church’s willingness to walk with us along that journey. We’re really at the early days of the conversation, and it will likely take us to many wonderful places as we continue the dialogue.”
Hanuse says the ‘Namgis First Nation hopes also to hear more about what the church wants from reconciliation.
“Reconciliation can’t just meet the needs of one party; it needs to meet the needs of all parties,” she says.
The diocesan council’s March 25 meeting focused on how it should respond to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action. The council will consider this response again at its next meeting in late April, eventually releasing a document to be used across the diocese, he says.
Also on March 26, McMenamie began a six-day walk from nearby Port McNeill to Sooke, near the southern tip of Vancouver Island, apologizing to First Nations communities for the harm the church did to them, and asking their permission to enter their traditional territories. It was the bishop’s second “Sacred Journey,” echoing a similar trek last year.
The diocese of British Columbia covers Vancouver Island, the Gulf Islands of the Strait of Georgia and Kingcome Inlet on the B.C. mainland.
Note: A correction has been made to this story. The ban on potlatches in Canada was instituted in 1884, not 1885.