Finding our way to the truth

Published November 26, 2013

(This article first appeared in the November issue of the Anglican Journal.)

The September Anglican Journal featured an article on page one-An ‘appalling, inhumane’ experiment– that quoted from a statement Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, and I made in response to the revelation that children at residential schools in the 1940s were subjected to nutrition experiments. One individual assumed that the statement was mine alone. As has been my experience generally whenever I have made a negative statement about the Indian residential schools, there was a sharp counter-reaction. Compared to past reactions, though, the comments I received were moderate. They helpfully pointed toward the remaining difficulties we face in understanding the systems that keep Canada from facing past evils in order to enter future good.

The statement, however, was actually penned by the primate and signed by me-the individual in question assumed it was my statement and that I was “playing to the crowd” and “ill-informed” about the nature of the nutritional experiments. Similar to other criticisms I have received, my words were described as “inflammatory” and “misleading.” Though that person grants that the schools were a part of a larger racist system that caused harm, his point was that we have unfairly demonized the schools, not recognizing some of the larger problems between Canada and indigenous peoples.

I disagree that the schools have been unfairly demonized, in this and other instances-in fact, I believe I have often been too moderate in my statements. But I do agree that there is a problem if we don’t put the Indian residential schools-and even the experiments-within the larger context of colonialism in Canada, an ongoing and accelerating problem. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Interim Report includes a number of fine statements about this larger context. (See In making this larger connection, the reader’s critique may be seen as helpful.

I also believe that many fine people were caught up in the vortex of an evil system, of which the schools were just one part. It is important to hear those people’s side of the story. This is not to discount the horror of the students’ experience-I do believe I am fairly well informed about that crushing reality-but we will not understand the full evil of this kind of system until we understand how it can co-opt the basic values and best intentions of so many people, of a whole nation and of the churches.

The Indian residential school system was a part of an evil system and we must repent of our involvement with it and the larger systems that animated it. These systems still exist. To demonize those who served in the schools, to make them solely responsible for what happened, is to dangerously avoid a larger responsibility and create the conditions that make it possible to do it again.

There never was-never has been-any real question about the goals of the schools within the program of colonial occupation: to disrupt and ultimately eliminate the basic societal, cultural and family functions among indigenous peoples. Within that context, we have found and will continue to find “appalling” and “inhumane” behaviour. Though any statement can and should be examined for fairness and accuracy, and should not exaggerate the role of individual people and programs within the larger story of Canadian colonialism, to avoid facing the larger evil (I hope even this critical reader will agree with brave and sharp words) serves nothing but the evil powers that corrupt and destroy our God-given humanity-the very powers that Jesus disabled upon the cross (Col. 2:17).





  • Mark MacDonald

    Mark MacDonald was national Indigenous Anglican bishop of the Anglican Church of Canada from 2007 to 2019, and national Indigenous Anglican archbishop from 2019 to 2022.

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