ACIP finds energy for indigenous church

Published November 1, 2003

ACIP co-chair Todd Russell and General Synod indigenous co-ordinator Donna Bomberry examine a pastoral letter released jointly by native and non-native church leaders following an October meeting.

Native and non-native leaders of the Anglican Church of Canada at a two-day meeting in October aired grievances that stemmed from the residential schools settlement agreement, but agreed to work together to bring native concerns before General Synod in 2004.

“When the Spirit moves, it moves. (The result of the meeting) gives me hope as a Christian, as an Anglican and as a native person,” said Todd Russell, co-chair of the Anglican Council of Indigenous Peoples (ACIP), which hosted the meeting.

“I was absolutely delighted. There was a better outcome that I could ask or imagine,” said Ellie Johnson, director of the partnerships with the national church. She added that the conference had relieved recent tension between native and non-native leaders.

In a pastoral letter released after the closed meeting, the participants, including Archbishop Michael Peers, the primate, referred to a gathering “marked by expressions of alienation.”

However, the meeting also produced a plan of action that calls for the establishment of an eight-member commission to consider how native Anglicans can achieve “self-sufficiency” and “indigenous governance” and how the church can establish the position of an indigenous bishop. These concepts have been endorsed by previous synods, or church governing conventions, but the commission will develop suggestions for implementation that will be “ready for action at the 2004 synod.”

Seven of the eight members will be appointed by ACIP and the eighth will be a special liaison named by the primate who will be a full participant with a voice. For its seven-month period of work, a budget of $84,000 has been proposed, said Donna Bomberry, co-ordinator of indigenous ministries with the national church, in an interview.

“Indigenous people need to find space within the Anglican church. It’s about securing Anglicanism for indigenous people. They are there through hurt and pain and healing. They are there and want to be there,” said Mr. Russell.

Despite the legacy of the Indian residential schools – a government-run system managed by four mainline denominations – Anglicanism carries a meaningful message for native Canadians, said Ms. Bomberry. “Anglicans and aboriginal people are an Easter people. That is such a healing message. To each of us who experiences life and is battered by it, we can experience healing through Christ’s message,” she said.

About 40 people attended the meeting – church leaders including Archbishop Peers and Ms. Johnson, General Secretary Jim Boyles and General Synod prolocutor Dorothy Davies-Flindall. Native leaders, in addition to Mr. Russell and Ms. Bomberry, included ACIP co-chair Rev. Andrew Wesley and Rev. Mervin Wolfleg of the diocese of Calgary . Other attendees included signers of the 1994 covenant between church leaders and native Anglicans that introduced the concept of a “new, self-determining community within the Anglican Church of Canada.”

(The meeting was open to invitees only.)

According to attendees, the meeting featured a native healing circle, (a meeting format where all participants speak in turn), then broke into smaller groups to write the pastoral letter and form an action plan, then reconvened in the healing circle.

The pastoral letter said “some indigenous members told again the stories of the residential schools; others told tragic stories of their own lives – deepened by a sense of rejection by the dominant society and the church.”

Relations between native Anglicans and non-native church leaders broke down last March when Archbishop Peers and other church officials signed an agreement with the federal government. It limited Anglican liability to $25 million in connection with lawsuits filed by natives alleging sexual and physical abuse in the residential schools. However, the national church also agreed to resist, along with the government, any efforts by natives to claim damages for the “loss of language and culture” in the schools

Both the government and church, while acknowledging that native culture was suppressed in the schools, said programs aimed at restoring culture were more appropriate than damage settlements. To date, no court has allowed a “loss of culture” claim to proceed.

However, for many ACIP members, loss of culture was at the heart of the boarding school experience. Many also took exception to parts of a developing process called alternate dispute resolution (ADR), meant to provide a faster, more humane resolution of abuse claims than court action.

While ADR was not part of the settlement agreement, ACIP members objected to a proposed requirement that claimants waive any right to sue for loss of culture even before beginning the ADR process. They also found distasteful a proposed “grid” system that allocated settlement awards according to levels of abuse. Most ACIP members boycotted the signing ceremony and criticized the primate for signing the agreement. The action also caused dissent among natives, some of whom had been part of the negotiating process and supported the agreement.

ACIP’s actions caused non-native church staff to feel ?incomprehension,? as the Winnipeg pastoral letter said. They “felt that the agreement, which to them represented significant sacrifice in the name of justice for victims, had been rejected for reasons they did not understand.”

The letter said that all acknowledged “our mutual responsibility for this shared reality” and vowed to “move forward together.”


  • Solange DeSantis

    Solange De Santis was a reporter for the Anglican Journal from 2000 to 2008.

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