Churches urged to ‘be on the record’ about their role in residential schools

Published January 10, 2008

It is important for churches to “be on the record” about the role that they played in the residential schools and what they have done to facilitate healing and reconciliation with aboriginal people who were affected by that legacy, said an official of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Bob Watts, interim executive director of the commission, said that while the commission is intended to be “victim-centered,” it was also important to hear how the churches, including the Anglican Church of Canada, have been affected and changed by the sad legacy of residential schools.

“Canadians need to hear from those who have witnessed the stories (of former students) about what (their) experiences have been … about what individuals and institutions are prepared to do to move forward,” he said. He cautioned, however, that reconciliation and healing does not happen overnight and would depend heavily “on the goodwill of peoples and institutions.”

Mr. Watts spoke at a gathering of aboriginal and non-aboriginal clergy and laity involved in the residential schools process, which was organized by the Anglican church to prepare them for the full implementation of the revised Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. The gathering, held at a Toronto hotel, was also intended to provide pastoral support to the clergy and laity who have either been representing the church in settlement hearings or who have been providing pastoral care to former students of residential schools.

A selection panel represented by former students, churches and government has already submitted a shortlist for the position of commission chairperson and two members to the prime minister’s office and an announcement is likely to be made soon, he said. He said that he was also “hopeful” that the apology to former students, which Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised in the speech from the throne last October, would be issued before the commission is launched; otherwise “a lot of what we will be hearing is, ‘why hasn’t it apologized’ and then government will be forced to apologize.”

Mr. Watts said the commission has sparked the interest of many groups overseas because it is the first truth commission set up by a member of the G-8 or group of developed countries, and is the first to address indigenous and human rights issues involving children who are now adults.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is part of the revised settlement agreement, intends to provide former students and their families an opportunity to share their experiences as well as to promote public education about the 150-year legacy of the now-defunct Indian residential schools. (The Anglican church operated 26 of 80 boarding schools attended by aboriginals from the mid-19th century into the 1970s. In recent years, hundreds of former students sued the church and the federal government, which owned the schools, alleging physical and sexual abuse.)

Daniel Ish, chief adjudicator of the Independent Assessment Process, meanwhile, walked participants through the assessment process, a key component of the agreement, which replaces the alternative dispute resolution process and aims to resolve claims of serious physical and sexual abuse experienced by former students.

Mr. Ish identified key differences between the independent assessment and alternative dispute resolution processes, among them the addition of more categories for claims such as income lost and student-to-student abuse.

He also stressed that although government provides the resources, the newer process is independent and is supervised by the nine provincial and territorial courts whose approval had been required by the agreement.

Mr. Ish said that although the Independent Assessment Process is a complicated procedure, it was nonetheless a “kinder, gentler” alternative to going to court. “The court is a blood sport. It is an adversarial process that is numbing even for the most thick-skinned. Older, vulnerable people won’t stand up to the court process,” he said, adding that it is also lengthier.

Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate (national archbishop) of the Anglican Church of Canada, attended the three-day gathering saying he was there “to listen, to learn and hopefully respond with courage,” to the “truth-telling” that will happen when the commission is implemented.

During its five-year term, the commission is expected to host seven national events and several community gatherings across the country to hear from residential school survivors, churches, and government.

Bishop Mark MacDonald, the national Anglican indigenous bishop, reflected about the legacy of colonialism in Canada, in particular the policy of assimilation through the residential schools. He said that Anglicans need to acknowledge “not that they failed, but that they carried the seeds of that horrific evil.”

“We are living in the lingering effect of the doctrine of discovery and many don’t understand it,” he said.
















  • Marites N. Sison

    Marites (Tess) Sison was editor of the Anglican Journal from August 2014 to July 2018, and senior staff writer from December 2003 to July 2014. An award-winning journalist, she has more that three decades of professional journalism experience in Canada and overseas. She has contributed to The Toronto Star and CBC Radio, and worked as a stringer for The New York Times.

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