Commission is best forum for finding truth about schools

Published March 1, 2008

If it had been meant as a test, then a passing grade could be given to the staff and volunteers who agreed to represent the church in a difficult meeting with a group of protestors who had announced only a day earlier that they planned to demonstrate in front of the church’s national office in Toronto on Feb. 8.

The group, in a letter to General Synod (the national office of the Anglican Church of Canada), said that they wished to hand deliver a letter to the primate (national archbishop), Fred Hiltz, demanding that the church investigate deaths and disappearances of children from the now-defunct residential schools system. The group also called on the church to turn over any records of missing and deceased children. Referring to the forthcoming Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) – which is part of a multi-million dollar settlement between the federal government and the denominations that ran the schools – they made it clear that they believe the Commission is compromised since it is being convened by the very government that conceived of the schools.

Nobody in either the government or the churches denies that appalling numbers of children were lost – either to illness, abuse or neglect – in the residential schools. Many children ran away and were not heard from again. While the protestors claim that 40,000 to 50,000 children went missing between 1840 and 1940, it is difficult to determine accurate figures as records were sometimes lost in fires or when schools closed. And, while the protestors scoff at the process, the TRC has broad support from the major stakeholders who were involved in the schools system – not just the government and the denominations that ran the institutions, but, crucially, the Assembly of First Nations. The aim of the commission is to create as complete a historical record as possible of the school system and its legacy; the process also has a proven track record in South Africa, where a similar commission in the mid-1990s is cited as an important milestone for that country’s transition to a democracy after decades of apartheid.

It is also noteworthy that at least two of the denominations targeted by the protestors (the Anglican and United churches) continue to make their archives open to the public – anyone seeking a missing family member may search the records. All churches involved in the TRC have committed to making their records available.

The protestors, who have garnered a reputation for disrupting church services in western Canada, were undeterred from their goal, even after being informed that the primate was out of the country and could not meet with them. The group was led by Kevin Annett, a non-native man and former United Church of Canada minister who was fired in 1995, after, he says, he uncovered “evidence of murders and land theft by United Church officers.”

(Churches targeted in earlier protests argue that Mr. Annett’s claims are unsubstantiated and have challenged him to turn over any evidence he has to back up his claims of mass graves of aboriginal children, secret burials and horrific medical experimentation at the schools.)

The protestors use the term “genocide” to describe the plight of aboriginal people who were caught up in the schools system; they stress that nothing less than an independent inquiry will satisfy them.

So, when General Synod was put on notice about the impending visit, staff were conflicted about how they should respond. Unaccustomed to dealing with confrontation, the church representatives went to extraordinary lengths to receive the group, which numbered less than two dozen. Chairs and a conversation area were arranged; coffee, juice and biscuits were prepared – an oddly endearing touch. If native elders were going to be present, they would be treated with respect.

With the primate absent, Ellie Johnson, the director of Partnerships who had handled the church’s portfolio on residential schools in recent years, asked two clerics to help her represent the church: retired Archbishop Terry Finlay (the primate’s special representative on the schools issue) and Rev. Andrew Wesley, an aboriginal priest who works in native ministry in Toronto.

When the protestors arrived, they declined to enter the building. The sidewalk dialogue between the spokespeople and the church representatives was mostly civil, although the protestors occasionally drowned out the exchange with their jeering and catcalls of “Genocide!” and “Shame on the church!”

The Anglican representatives – who have most certainly felt shame on behalf of their church over the residential schools legacy – kept their composure. Regrettably, the protestors reserved some of their most unpleasant criticism for two aboriginal church representatives (Mr. Wesley and Donna Bomberry, General Synod’s co-ordinator of indigenous ministries). They unfairly sneered at the church (and, indirectly, at the two individuals, too) for using native people as its “apologists.”

In recent years, the church has made great strides in its healing work and reparation for decades of having treated aboriginal Canadians as something less than equal members of Christ’s family. In this particular area, the General Synod archivists have spent remarkable amounts of time and resources searching records for references to children who died in the schools; to date, they have confirmed 115 deaths. There will certainly be more. That is not an achievement of which the church ought to be proud, but it is right to conduct and deliver its research in accordance with the established channel: the TRC.

Their critics have given no legitimate reason to do otherwise.


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