The signing of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA) was a tumultuous experience for the Anglican Church of Canada—one that transformed the church’s relationship with Indigenous peoples and left a lasting legacy, the effects of which are still being felt to this day.
The precise meaning of that experience, however, depends on whose voices are heard.
On July 11, the 42nd General Synod passed a resolution acknowledging receipt of the report One Step on a Journey: The Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement and the Anglican Church of Canada—Lessons Learned, along with its executive summary. The resolution encourages all levels of the church to read the documents and to “take action on their recommendations for ongoing reconciliation work both within the Anglican Church and more broadly.”
Melanie Delva, reconciliation animator for the Anglican Church of Canada, presented the 21-page report and the resolution to General Synod. Delva played the lead role in writing One Step on a Journey and the exercises that provided its content, which asked respondents to reflect on their experiences of the IRSSA.
In discussing what the church had learned from its experience as a signatory to the IRSSA—and what it still needs to learn in order to “live better into right relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples”—Delva pointed synod members to the Book of Ezra in the Old Testament, which recounts the release of the Israelites from captivity in Babylon, the return of the exiles to Zion and their rebuilding of the temple of Jerusalem.
Delva quoted Ezra 3:12: “But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundations of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy.” Such mixed emotions, she suggested, had much in common with the reactions among Indigenous and non-Indigenous Anglicans to the process sparked by the signing of the IRSSA.
“Within the Anglican Church, it’s apparent that the signing of the settlement agreement marked a break in relationship between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples within our church,” Delva said.
The impetus for the church’s signing of the IRSSA in 2003 was the largest class-action lawsuit in Canadian history, filed by survivors and former students of the residential schools. The IRSSA was a legally binding document that recognized the suffering caused by the residential schools and provided a mechanism for financial compensation to survivors.
In 2018, parties and signatories to the IRSSA, including the Canadian government, churches that ran the residential schools and national Indigenous organizations, agreed to collaborate on “lessons learned” exercises, with the goal of reflecting on the agreement to inform ongoing efforts towards reconciliation and resolution.
To produce One Step on a Journey, Delva—working with the counsel of Primate Fred Hiltz, National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald, General Secretary Michael Thompson, and staff at the Anglican Healing Fund and Indigenous Ministries—gathered data by surveying national staff members and church leaders, and conducting one-on-one interviews with both Indigenous and non-Indigenous respondents.
In addition, she convened a survivors’ sharing circle in Lytton, B.C., where the Anglican Residential School of St. George’s had been located. Local clergy and pastoral elders from the Indigenous community led the circle, which also included the presence of intergenerational survivors.
“Full disclosure: this [process] was hard,” Delva said. “I learned a lot. And some of the things that I learned were hard to hear, and incredibly important for us to hear.”
“Particularly difficult was to hear of the pain surrounding the fact that we as an Anglican church entered into the settlement agreement against the wishes of the Anglican Council of Indigenous Peoples [ACIP].”
The opposition of ACIP to the church’s signing of the IRSSA stemmed from section 2.19 of the agreement, which stated that Indigenous people would waive all future claims for loss of language and culture, or violation of treaty rights. The IRSSA would also have obliged the Anglican Church of Canada to “vigorously oppose” any such claims.
ACIP members at the time expressed alarm over section 2.19 as well as the Alternate Dispute Resolution process for resolution of claims, which they feared would re-victimize survivors through “torturous” and “appalling” methods. They wrote to then-primate Michael Peers urging him not to sign the IRSSA until changes could be made regarding their concerns. Ultimately, no changes were made and Peers signed the agreement on March 11, 2003.
The signing of the IRSSA without the support of ACIP, and later disciplining of church staff who had been providing staff support to ACIP, caused what the report described as “a definite break in the relationship” between non-Indigenous church leadership and Indigenous Anglicans.
Yet in her report presented to General Synod 2019, Delva also highlighted numerous positive impacts on the church that resulted from the signing of the IRSSA.
These positive impacts included the establishment of the Primate’s Commission on Discovery, Reconciliation and Justice, the Vision Keepers Council and the Jubilee Commission; the naming of a national Indigenous Anglican bishop and passing of Canon XXII on Indigenous Ministries; the ongoing work of the Anglican Healing Fund; the emerging self-determining Indigenous Anglican Church; and education regarding the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the historical and current effects of colonization.
Despite such achievements, respondents in the report also expressed a number of concerns, such as the difficulty in changing the hearts of “the whole church,” the prevalence of unpaid (non-stipendiary) clergy in Indigenous communities; institutionalized racism in the church and the inactivity of the Anti-Racism Working Group of the Council of General Synod, and a persistent apathy or “compassion fatigue.”
Delva noted that she had experienced much of the latter on her own travels across the country for the church as reconciliation animator.
“People say, ‘We’ve talked about this over and over, how long do we need to keep talking about this?’ So I do hear this along the way.
“While some healing has taken place,” she added, “it became clear to me in the responses to this exercise that there is a need to return to the covenant of 1994, A Covenant and our Journey of Spiritual Renewal; the associated Pinawa Declaration and Mississauga Declaration which followed thereafter; and the 2014 document Where We Are Today.”
The report One Step on a Journey makes a number of recommendations to further reconciliation, both within the Anglican Church of Canada and beyond the church.
Where reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Anglicans is concerned, it advocates new and sustainable funding for, and partnership with, Indigenous Ministries and/or the self-determining Indigenous Anglican Church. The report also suggests a renewed commitment to anti-racism work at the national level and ongoing education of Anglicans on the history and legacy of residential schools, treaties, Indigenous rights and current manifestations of racism and colonialism.
Outside the church, recommendations include sustained funding for the Anglican Healing Fund, which benefits Indigenous people and communities who have no relationship to the church; further advocacy in Indigenous led-movements for Indigenous rights, and the building of a stronger Canada-wide network for local reconciliation work.
In her conclusion, Delva thanked “the survivors who called us to this work,” praising their strength, resilience and bravery. She urged Anglicans to read the full report, which is available on the Anglican Church of Canada website, and to follow its recommendations.
“As some of you know, especially in this diocese, I worked for 12 years in the Anglican Church archives,” Delva told synod members. “So I know what happens to reports…. I have seen many of them come and go, and be filed away to be looked at 50 years later….”
Returning to a theme of the Book of Ezra, she ended with a call to action.
“God is good because love endures forever. And in this love, we can move forward together.”