The bishop of the Anglican diocese of Quebec, Dennis Drainville, known for his commitment to social justice issues, is taking part in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Quebec national event, April 24 to 27, in Montreal.
The Anglican Journal spoke with Drainville about his diocese’s role in the event, which offers former students an opportunity to share the impact that their experiences in Indian residential schools have had on their lives, and for the rest of Canada to be educated about it.
For more than 150 years, about 180,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children were removed from their homes and sent to federally funded schools managed by Anglican, Catholic, Presbyterian and United churches. There were students who suffered physical, emotional and sexual abuse in these schools. The Anglican Church of Canada operated over 30 residential schools across Canada, one of them La Tuque, in Quebec.
Following are excerpts from the interview.
Q: Why have you chosen to take part in this event?
A: In my life, issues of justice have been really important, and in the 1980s, I worked with the Anishinabe in Temagami, Ont. We were trying to support them and their aspirations to protect their land from the provincial government. When I was at the Legislative Assembly [of Ontario] I worked on the Charlottetown Accord, which included aboriginal self-governance. My life has been, in cycles, involved in various aboriginal issues and concerns.
The issue of reconciliation between First Nations, the Inuit people and the people of Canada has grown to be a major issue for our society. As a leader in the Anglican community, I see it as my role to take an active leadership to help people make the connections that are necessary.
I was quite struck today with the deputy minister [for Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Affairs Canada, Michael Wernick] when he talked about his 12-year-old daughter, who had no context to understand the residential schools and how [its effects were] so negative on our aboriginal people. My daughter is 14 and I have lamented that she has not received the kind of information that would help her understand our role in depriving aboriginal people of their rights.
I’m here to become a bridge for the people of the diocese of Quebec and the Anglican church to engage even more fully this process, and I’m led by my brothers and sisters in the First Nations and Inuit communities. It is those leaders who have given us such a strong sense of direction, a strong sense of focus. It is they who have given us an opportunity to come to a real breakthrough between the two cultures. I’m here to give support to them and listen to the stories. Some of my role is passive; my witness is a silent witness. It is my people who took away their rights; it is my culture that denigrated their culture; it is my people who enslaved their people.
In the face of such injustice, leaders like me, and the church at a certain point, have to remain silent, and through our silence, accept the blame, the hurt, the shame that we have visited upon those people.
Q: Reconciliation between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people is often raised as an important goal for Canada. What does it mean to be reconciled?
A: Let me just give an example: when there’s a breakdown in a marriage, where the lack of trust has been broken, where the relationship is significantly fractured, such things do not repair themselves easily. Certainly it takes many years.
We have systematically over many, many generations denied justice to the First Nations of Canada and the Inuit people. We cannot just accept that over the last 10 to 15 years we have taken this situation much more seriously and the fact that we have changed our attitudes is necessarily putting an end to the process of reconciliation. It took us many generations to wreak havoc and chaos, so it is going to take us many, many years to redress those grievances and enter into the true spirit of reconciliation.
It is one thing for the government of Canada to make a public apology, but it is quite another to maintain the Indian Act, which is one of the most racist pieces of legislation [ever] but is still the means by which we work with aboriginal people in Canada. It needs to be thrown out. It needs to be done with the support and consultation that is necessary with aboriginal groups.
We have a long way to go before reconciliation is a reality in this country.
Q: What role can the church play to help bring about reconciliation?
A: If I have learned one thing over the years of my life, it is how insignificant the church is to society. We now do not have any real standing; our opinions are our own. Governments do not particularly care where the churches stand on almost any issue. I don’t see that as a problem-I see that as a gift because then we don’t have to pretend we are part of the power structure, because decidedly, we are not.
So what is our role then? Our role is within the context of our own communities: how do we help our own people to take on the guilt and shame we should have [experienced] when trying to bring about cultural genocide? We have to own that.
My role as a leader of the church is to acknowledge those things and to redress them, and to get on with the role of reconciliation, not only with the generations that exist now but the generations that [will] follow us.
Q: This event has emphasized the role that youth can play in moving things forward.
A: What’s important is to see the changes that have taken place in young aboriginal people. There’s a much more conscious decision now to be engaged in issues; there is a sense of taking on some of that leadership, which is a very positive thing.
You have to look at just the sheer numbers of young people in aboriginal communities-40 per cent of their population is under the age of 24.
If indeed the young people don’t take on their responsibilities, it would be, in the future, a situation where we have not become reconciled because no one was doing the work that needs to be done-[being] engaged and plugged into the Idle No More movement and other means, bodes very well for the future.
If only the church was as successful in harnessing young people in this issue. We’re still trying to figure this out at the church in terms of how we get young people involved in all of this.
The fact is, those who have been to residential school and those involved in the process at this point are my age. I’m 59. How many years am I going to be doing what I’m doing? It’s the same for them. Their young people have lived in broken relationships because of the same decisions that the generation before me made about residential schools.
The fact that young people are taking more and more leadership is an indication of an attempt to stop-I think young people in aboriginal nations are saying, “Enough, already. We need to be the means by which this is really dealt with.” That’s a positive thing.
I don’t speak for every community, but to reflect on the Anglican Church in the diocese of Quebec, anyway, I would say it is not a predominant issue [for non-aboriginal youth], in their context. We have to really engage even more in trying to educate people as to how we have been a part of this awful attempt to assimilate.