Eleanor “Ellie” Johnson, the longtime director of partnerships for the Anglican Church of Canada who played a key role in the settlement agreement for residential school survivors, died on Jan. 7.
Johnson worked at the church’s national office in Toronto for 21 years, 14 of which she spent as director of the partnerships department until her retirement in 2008. In the latter role, she oversaw mission and justice work, grants to overseas partners and residential school healing projects. Johnson served as the church’s official representative to the federal government on residential schools starting in 2005.
Johnson’s two decades at General Synod also included stints as interim general secretary, mission education coordinator and associate director of world missions. During her retirement she was a member of St. Simon’s Anglican Church in Oakville.
The Rev. Ken Gray, who first met Johnson as a member of the General Synod EcoJustice Committee from 2001 to 2007, described her in a blog post as “a talented and tough leader” who made healing and reconciliation central to the life of the church while working with partners.
“Ellie helped us all to think about what Christian mission was and is,” Gray said.
Born Eleanor Spence in 1942, Johnson was inspired to become a missionary through curiosity about different cultures and reading a biography of theologian Albert Schweitzer. She earned a master’s degree in anthropology at McGill University in 1964 and spent time as a graduate student doing field work in Trinidad, where she met her future husband, Tim Johnson.
The couple later lived in Kenya, then Michigan, where Johnson earned her doctorate in anthropology at Michigan State University. They had three daughters and Johnson at one point taught high school in Honduras. After the family moved back to Canada, Johnson accepted a post-doctoral fellowship in horticulture at the University of New Brunswick.
In the early 1980s, she sought to shift into church work. There were no openings at the time in the office of the United Church of Canada, in which she had been raised. This pointed her to the Anglican Church of Canada. Johnson spent five years as director of Christian education at Christ Church parish in Fredericton before joining the staff of General Synod.
In discussions among managers at the national office, Johnson “was an active participant, one who came with new ideas, with sensitivity to what would work, what wouldn’t work, a sensitivity to the people out in the field that were involved,” said. former general secretary Jim Boyles, who worked with her from 1993 to 2004 as a member of the management team at Church House,
Those qualities were fully evident, he added, in 2005 when Johnson began working with a survivors’ group for the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.
“She was the right person for that,” Boyles said. “She had the sensitivity to the survivors and worked hard at designing a process so that the survivors wouldn’t be re-victimized as they told their story.”
Johnson’s involvement in a pilot project for alternative dispute resolution led to the Independent Assessment Program in the agreement, in which survivors could tell their stories of serious abuse to an adjudicator without being cross-examined.
National Indigenous Archbishop Mark MacDonald said in a Facebook post that the late partnerships director was “a great friend to Indigenous Ministries and peoples,” citing her work in residential school settlement negotiations.
Boyles added of Johnson: “She’ll be remembered fondly by many people right across the church.”