Indian residential school survivors need more time to share their stories, says Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada.
Yesterday, on the last day of the first national event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) here, he supported calls made by survivors saying that the work of healing and reconciliation cannot be rushed. “What we’re hearing from survivors is, ‘Please don’t be driven by a government timetable…,’ ” said Archbishop Hiltz, who described the experience as “very, very humbling” and said he now realizes that “people are in different places in their capacity for healing.
“If we think we’ve done a lot of work around healing and reconciliation this event for me has just sent a strong, powerful signal that we’ve only just begun.” The church needs to be “100 per cent supportive of the work of the TRC,” said Archbishop Hiltz, and that if the healing journey with survivors requires “a long time and require a long-term commitment, so be it.”
The primate listened to former students re-live their experiences in residential schools at sharing circles; he also participated in ceremonies and other activities. The TRC, which has a five-year mandate, was established as part of the revised 2007 settlement agreement that involved residential school survivors, the federal government and churches that operated the schools.
Archbishop Hiltz noted that very few survivors visited the inter-faith tent shared by the Anglican, United, Presbyterian, and Roman Catholic churches that operated the residential schools. “…someone said to me, ‘You just have to be aware of the fact that some people are not yet comfortable; they’re just not ready to do that,’ ” he said.
On the third day of this event, Archbishop Hilz decided not to wear his clergy collar. “There are mixed feelings around this event about whether or not clergy should be wearing their collars and bishops should be in purple… for some people that’s a comfort and for some people it makes them feel uneasy,” he said.
The damage that occurred to students in the residential schools has now become a multi-generational legacy, noted Archbishop Hiltz. He added that the church has to also take responsibility for the fact that while it was supposed to stand for “healthy, happy family relations,” it became part of a system that through residential schools “tore family life apart, destroyed families.” Its impact has also gone from generation to generation, he said. “We have a lot to account for in terms of how we hurt many, many people.”
About 180,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children attended government-funded residential schools, which were operated by churches across Canada from the late 19th century to 1996. The Anglican Church of Canada administered about three dozen of the 130 schools at various times between 1820 and 1969. In the 1990s, former students came out with stories of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse in these schools; hundreds sued government and churches.
As he sat through the sharing circles and listened to survivors recount stories of pain and abuse, Archbishop Hiltz said, “I felt so ashamed.” The church has not paid enough attention to “repentance for the wrongs we’ve done,” he said, and to issues around “inherent racism that still exists in Canadian society and in the church.”
Archbishop Hiltz said he was “surprised” that churches were given a prominent role in the opening ceremonies. The TRC “gave us an opportunity that they didn’t have to give us…they were very generous in including us to the extent that they did,” he said.
The primate said he is aware that the church has to “work hard at letting people see the significance of the work of the TRC.” The TRC is “just not on the radar screen” of many Canadians, because they think it happened a long time ago, it didn’t happen in their area, and they were not directly responsible for it, he noted.
And yet, he said, “it helps if people understand the nature of what it means to be a nation, what it means to be a church and to have done such wrong to people generation after generation after generation, we simply can’t dismiss that wrong. We have to take responsibility for what we were all a part of.”