Canadian church and aboriginal leaders launched a four-city tour before almost 500 people at the Canadian Museum of Civilization March 2 to begin what Phil Fontaine, Chief of the Assembly of First Nations called, “one of the most remarkable journeys that this country has ever taken.”
The work of the upcoming Truth and Reconciliation Commission will provide “an opportunity to expose lies that we were forced to live with for far too long,” he said, drawing applause from the larger-than expected crowd. It will be an opportunity to “shine a light on Canada’s darkest chapter and expose not just to Canada but to the world what was done to a people that didn’t deserve it,” he said.
The primate (national archbishop) of the Anglican Church of Canada, Fred Hiltz, told the gathering, “As a church we have so much for which to be sorry,” and noted that in its apology in 1993, the national church pledged to walk with aboriginal people on their journey. “Remembering the Children – that is the theme of this walk we begin together today,” said Archbishop Hiltz. “(They are) the children who were taken far from home and family and then denied their language and culture as we went about making them in our image.”
Native children in residential schools were punished for speaking their language, abused physically, emotionally and sexually and many were scarred for life, said the archbishop. “Many have survived their experiences, many others went missing, and many died.”
The primate also said the church leaders are committed to the commission’s “truth-telling” work and will do their best to continue raising the profile of the commission’s work over the next five years. The date of the commencement of the commission’s work and its composition has yet to be announced.
The launch of the church and aboriginal leaders’ tour, which will include Vancouver (March 5), Saskatoon (March 9) and Winnipeg (March 10) took place on a stage in front of large totem poles in the museum’s Grand Hall.
“The Truth and Reconciliation process is an opportunity for us to hear the truth about and begin to break the enduring chains created by Indian Residential Schools,” said Rev. David Giuliano, moderator (national leader) of the United Church of Canada. The United Church largely hosted the celebratory event, which included aboriginal singers, dancers, throat singers and drummers as well as a group of Christian ecumenical dancers.
The moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, Rev. J.H. Kouwenberg, said the church leaders “want to communicate the historic importance of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as it seeks to give a voice to residential school survivors and their families.” As well, he said, “It will surely help the country to learn more about a poorly understood aspect of our nation’s history.”
The program also included a greeting from Archbishop Roger Ebacher, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Gatineau, and a closing “circle dance” in which most people at the launch, including the church and aboriginal leaders, and federal Indian Affairs Chuck Strahl participated.
At a news conference on Parliament Hill the following morning, the church leaders, including Terrence Prendergast, Roman Catholic archbishop of Ottawa, echoed their support for the commission’s work. “As churches in Canada we acknowledge our failures in Indian residential schools, which aimed to socialize and Christianize First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples,” said Archbishop Hiltz. “We failed them, we failed ourselves, we failed God,” he said. “We failed because of our racism and because of the belief that white ways were superior to aboriginal ways.”
Bishop Mark MacDonald, the Anglican church’s national indigenous bishop, told reporters, “If we allow the truth to be told and have a heart to hear it, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s work will be a doorway to a better Canada for us all. In fact, at this moment, it is the most important doorway to a liveable future.”
Art Babych is editor of Crosstalk, the newspaper of the Anglican diocese of Ottawa.
(Editor’s Note: The first paragraph of this story, first published online on March 3, has been revised.)