Balanced approach needed to Native issues

Published November 1, 1998

NATIVE ISSUES, never far from the front burner in the church, are a hot topic these days. First, in various parts of the country lawsuits are being filed and court decisions watched to see how culpable courts find the church over proven or alleged sexual and physical abuse incidents at residential schools involving the Anglican Church.

Secondly, on the West Coast, the largely Anglican Nisga’a tribe has signed a land claim treaty agreement with the B.C. and federal governments, which must still be ratified by all three signatories. Opponents are outraged, but the church has been a long-time supporter of the Nisga’a.

Thirdly, there is a revival of the drawn-out discussion to create some type of all-Native Anglican Church. The latest development was a proposal at Keewatin’s synod this summer by some Native members to separate from the Northern Ontario and Manitoba diocese.

Meanwhile, the bishops Brandon and Rupert’s Land (Winnipeg) have been discussing a proposal to shift pastoral responsibilities so that Keewatin’s Native bishop, Gordon Beardy will have jurisdiction over the Natives in all three dioceses.

In all three issues, it is easy to simplify these highly complex matters. It keeps people from having to wrestle with the past to discern what was good and what was not. But no amount of pretending one side is all right and the other all wrong will advance the situation.

Church guilt is present in spades in these issues. Guilt can be a motivator to seek justice but it can also be an impediment to a just solution. Secular guilt seems virtually absent and critics who note the lack of a social conscience in Canada have increasing data to show we are all failing Native Canadians badly.

The residential schools issue is the one that has church officials most worried. Their concern is threefold. Setting aside the legal question of how responsible the church is for the actions of people it hired to help run the schools, the problems are: feelings of guilt for having had any involvement in residential schools at all; feeling wounded that media sometimes portray the church in a bad light for that involvement and criticize the church for defending itself in court against the subsequent lawsuits; and concern about the legal costs and settlements of these cases.

There is reason to feel guilty. There was physical, sexual and emotional abuse. It was wrong behaviour. That is evident from stories of many teachers and missionaries who were kind and just. Primate Michael Peers offered an unreserved apology on behalf of the Anglican Church in 1993 for the church’s direct and indirect role in the various forms of abuse that took place. The church has also been involved in and helped finance various forms of healing for victims.

Whether the church should ever have been involved in such a venture is far more complex. Questions of whether to evangelize and Westernize indigenous peoples are difficult enough today. A century or more ago, people thought differently. Declaring they were wrong is as helpful as saying Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon was immoral.

Media frequently portray the church negatively in the first place for being involved in the schools and worse in the second place for trying to defend itself against the subsequent lawsuits. The fact is that churches – primarily Roman Catholic, United and Anglican – were acting on behalf of Canadian society as a whole as far as the schools go. Organized Christianity is a shadow of its former self in today’s secular world but it was all the charitable agencies and then some, rolled into one only a couple of generations ago. Most people in Canada were Christian and most went to church, so any guilt for having residential schools at all belongs to Canadian society as a whole.

The irony is that critics who say churches, as purveyors of morality, should have known better in the past are frequently the same ones who say churches today should have no voice whatsoever in framing current morality on issues such as abortion, euthanasia, suicide and sexuality.

The legal costs will be high and churches are going to feel the pinch but Canadian courts haven’t been inclined to punish institutions like the church to the point of extinction. Nor do courts typically award massive punitive damages like American ones.

If the question of how to handle a culture clash with respect to integration, schooling – even the concept of reserves – is a minefield, the matter of land claims is relatively easy. By and large, Natives have been cheated, whether by governments, companies or individuals. The motivation has been greed excused by racism.

On the East Coast, at least there were treaties. Many have been ignored for several generations, but it doesn’t invalidate them. (Media often refer to how old a treaty is, as if relying on a 150-year-old treaty is somehow ridiculous; failing to grasp that most of the laws that permit them to express their ignorance with impunity – free speech – reach back well past 150 years.) In the West, by contrast, much Native land was stolen – the Euro-Canadians of the day often freely admitting this in their correspondence.

It is also true that some of the issues are clouded by the sanitized, revised Disney history of Native Americans which supposes they all thought of themselves as one with the land, all had a deep and meaningful spirituality involving the land and all were naive, peaceful peoples until the Europeans arrived. Stereotypes have some truth in them, but Native cultures and spirituality are diverse. Even today, there is still tension between certain groups, such as Canada’s Inuit and Northern Cree.

This raises the question of one Native bishop having jurisdiction over Native congregations in three or four dioceses. Throughout history, it has been the mark of success in the wider church when a recently evangelized area is able to raise sufficient candidates of its own for ordained ministry and sufficient funds to support itself. That doesn’t mean people from other cultures can’t continue to minister effectively. (Such a position would mean British-born bishops Williams of the Arctic, Baycroft of Ottawa and Ingham of New Westminster couldn’t hold the positions they do in Canada.)

So the suggestion that Bishop Gordon Beardy have responsibilities for Natives outside his own diocese of Keewatin is no doubt well meant but questionable. As he said during a recent visit to Toronto, he supports his people’s drive for self-determination but that means that he can walk together with his Native brothers and sisters as well as his non-Native brothers and sisters. In Christ, after all, there is neither Native nor non-Native.

The road to that goal is long and difficult.


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