(This story was first published in the September 1993 issue of the Anglican Journal.)
Anglicans failed native people, themselves and God with their involvement in residential schools, said Archbishop Michael Peers, the primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, as he delivered an apology at the second national native convocation, held here last month.
The Anglican church operated 26 residential schools across Canada until the late 1960s.
“I am sorry, more than I can say, that we were part of a system that took you and your children from home and families,” he said, speaking slowly and deliberately.
“I am sorry, more than I can say, that we tried to re-make you in our image by taking from you your language and your signs of identity.
“I am sorry, more than I can say, that in our schools, so many were abused physically, sexually, culturally and emotionally, and from myself and from the Anglican Church of Canada, I offer my apology.”
The apology was accepted on behalf of the native people by elder Vi Smith, who offered praise and thanks for the primate’s courage.
The native convocation, entitled Dancing the Dream brought together 120 native people, both lay and ordained. As well, there were a dozen non-natives and international participants, including bishops from New Zealand and Zimbabwe and a native representative from the U.S. Episcopal church.
They came to Minaki Lodge, a resort 30 minutes north of Kenora, to discuss the church, its past and its future.
The first native convocation was held in 1988.
“At that first gathering, we shared a lot of dreams, but also a lot of pain,” said Rev. Laverne Jacobs, national co-ordinator of native ministries.
“This week we are called to dance, but we begin very slowly, and we call to others to join us,” he told convocation delegates in his opening address.
About 20 youth delegates, mostly native, attended the conference. They were given one day of the week’s program to convey concerns to their elders and to the national church.
Again and again, they pleaded for understanding and communication between the generations.
“Let youth have more responsibility in programs and in leadership so they have a voice,” said one youth.
Another spoke of her painful childhood and said she needed the help of her community in order to heal.
The young people organized a fast-paced schedule of both serious and lighter events for the day. While in the morning, they had the convocation struggling through issues such as single parenthood and sexual abuse, the afternoon featured participants baking bannock on an outdoor grill and making beaded crosses.
Emotions ran high mid-week when the topic of residential schools arose.
Participants viewed the 1992 Anglican church video Search for Healing. After the emotional film ended, muffled sobs and sniffles were the only sounds in the theatre. Then the meeting was opened for discussion.
One by one, delegates approached the microphone to share their stories.
Delegates sat stoically, occasionally dabbing at their eyes, listening to the familiar stories of abuse and harsh punishments in the schools.
Most stories were disturbingly similar: parents having no choice about sending their children out to school, then once there, the deliberate attempt to stamp out the native language and culture of the students.
“That film evokes a lot of hurt for me,” said Rev. Mervin Wolfleg, a delegate who appeared in some 1950s Anglican church film footage in the video.
He was a young student at Old Sun Residential School in Alberta when a church film crew came in to make what he calls a “church propaganda film.”
“Those people that you see in that film, most have died. Some are alive, and they’re mostly alcoholics, and they’re not even in church anymore.
“I don’t even have a close acquaintance from my school days. They all died.”
Participants were encouraged to share their feelings in order to start their healing.
“We should have started this a long time ago,” said James Jeffries of Moose Factory.
“If we don’t deal with this now, we’re going to be back here in five more years with the same old hate. A little older, but no better.”
Another delegate said that while he thought the church’s National Executive Council (NEC) should be commended or continuing to fund work examining residential schools, more action was needed – particularly with the children of those who had been in the schools.
“I challenge the church,” he said. “An apology is not good enough. We have to help these children, the ones trying suicide.”
A few delegates acknowledged that not everything about residential schools was bad: many attributed their faith and their education to the schools, and said there were some good people who worked at them.
“I know the only way we’re going to heal is if we leave behind the bad and remember and treasure the good. I know that it wasn’t all bad,” said Mina Stevenson.
Non-native delegates vowed to bring the stories they had heard back to their own communities, parishes and church committees.
They also drafted five resolutions supporting native issues, which are to be taken to NEC.
International guests encouraged native Anglicans not to abandon their faith because of their hurt, but to improve on it by blending their native ways with their Christian ways.
Maori Bishop Hui Vercoe of Aotearoa (New Zealand) urged native people to reclaim their church in their “own nativeness.”
“The thing that binds us together is that we believe in one God, but we do it in our own way, in our own time and with our own traditions,” he said.