Anglican Church vows to help address youth suicide crisis in Wapekeka First Nation; says it helped create ‘legacy of brokenness’

Archdeacon Michael Thompson, general secretary of the Anglican Church of Canada, says that the trauma former priest Ralph Rowe was responsible for still echoes in Indigenous communities. File photo: Art Babych
Archdeacon Michael Thompson, general secretary of the Anglican Church of Canada, says that the trauma former priest Ralph Rowe was responsible for still echoes in Indigenous communities. File photo: Art Babych
Published January 23, 2017

The Anglican Church of Canada has acknowledged that itplayed a role in creating the conditions that led to the suicides of two younggirls in Wapekeka First Nation, a remote Oji-Cree community in Ontario, earlierthis month.

In a January 20 statement, Archdeacon Michael Thompson, general secretary, said the church “helpedcreate a legacy of brokenness in some First Nations communities” through theactions of one of its former priests, Ralph Rowe, who abused many Indigenousboys in communities across Northwestern Ontario throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

The statement came in response to comments made by GrandChief Alvin Fiddler of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation during a press conference onJanuary 19 following the deaths by suicide of 12-year-olds Jolynn Winter andChantel Fox in early January.

Fiddler said the suicides, like a number of previous incidents, were linked to intergenerational trauma caused by Rowe’s predation,which has had a profound impact on the community.

Thompson said that Rowe’s abuse was “massive in its scopeand horrendous in its impact,” and that the church has a “moral obligation…tosupport initiatives that address its continuing consequences.”

Thompson acknowledged that the trauma Rowe was responsiblefor still echoes in communities and that its impact is “intergenerational.”

He expressed the church’s “willingness, in spite of failingsand false starts in the past, to renew our commitment to dialogue anddiscernment that will help us understand more deeply and act more effectivelyon our responsibilities.”

Rowe was convicted of 39 sexual offenses in 1994, and servedfour and a half years of a six-year sentence. Further convictions for sexualassault followed in 2005 and 2009, and in 2012 he was given a two-yearconditional sentence to be served under house arrest. Survivors Rowe, a documentary film released in 2015, estimates that Rowe had abused 500 boys.

Trained as a pilot in the Royal Canadian Air Force, Roweserved as a missionary pilot before he was ordained in 1975. He also served asa scout master with the Boy Scouts of Canada.

Fiddler said the community had “reached out the Anglicanchurch numerous times,” but that the church had “never acknowledged their role”in Rowe’s abuse or provided funding for community-based healing initiatives,nor had it apologized to the survivors.

In a tweet following the press conference, Fiddler said heexpects “not just an apology but a commitment of resources to address harm [theAnglican Church of Canada] caused.”

Thompson told the AnglicanJournal that he was unaware of any requests from Wapekeka First Nation, butnoted that this does not mean requests were not made.

Fiddler was unavailable for comment at press time.

Thompson’s statement notes that the Anglican Church ofCanada has provided financial support for community-led healing projects throughthe Anglican Healing Fund in other communities affected by Rowe’s abuses, includingWunnumin Lake, Sachigo Lake, Kingfisher Lake and Sioux Lookout.

Thompson said the church also supports two suicideprevention co-ordinators for Indigenous communities in the north who work withthe Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, the Centre for SuicidePrevention, and other government and tribal council partners.

His statement ends by noting that the church “looks to[Fiddler] and to others to help us direct our actions in ways that will helpend the crisis in the communities he serves.”

Undated photo of former Anglican priest Ralph Rowe, who was convicted in 1994 of abusing Indigenous boys in communities across Northwestern Ontario in the 1970s and 1980s. File photo: General Synod Archives

Healing Fund co-ordinator Esther Wesley said the church didsupport one project in Wapekeka First Nation, but that the applicationoriginated with Tikinagan Child & Family Services in SiouxLookout.

The project, a five-day healing and cultural camp held inAugust 2015, was based out of CampMishakamaayashinoonini-wug, on the Wapekeka First Nation territory, whichpromotes healing by reconnecting Indigenous people with traditional knowledge,skills and languages.

Both Thompson and Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of theAnglican Church of Canada, noted that Bishop Lydia Mamakwa, of the SpiritualMinistry of Mishamikoweesh (within whose jurisdiction Wapekeka First Nation lies) and her predecessor, former bishop of Keewatin David Ashdown, have issuedpersonal apologies to some survivors of Rowe’s abuse over the years.

But Thompson said now might be the right time for “a formal,national apology” for the church’s involvement in Rowe’s abuse.

Hiltz, however, said he would need to consult with Mamakwa aboutthe appropriate timing and delivery of an apology.

“At some point, I do need to stand beside Bishop Lydia andsay I am very sorry for what has happened here, and that our church…is deeplycommitted to trying to enable some healing for these individuals and theirfamilies,” he said. He said that Mamakwa may want to talk with elders,survivors, and members of the community affected by suicide about the best wayto move forward.

Mamakwa herself was not available to comment at press time.

When asked whether an apology would be accompanied bymaterial support, Hiltz said he it wouldlikely go hand in hand with a “commitment on the part of the church to providesome support for healing projects in the community.”

Thompson said the national church is working to ensure thatthe Anglican Healing Fund will have money to continue its work beyond 2017,and that the Healing Fund “is one vehicle that might be highly effective in addressinghealing” for the Wapekeka First Nation community.


  • André Forget

    André Forget was a staff writer for the Anglican Journal from 2014 to 2017.

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