An Anglican archbishop has expressed the hope that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) process will lay the foundation for healing and new relationships of “respect, dignity and understanding” between Canada’s aboriginal and non-aboriginal people.”
“My prayer is that truth-telling will begin the journey toward a new chapter for our church and our country,” said Archbishop John Privett in a statement. Privett is bishop of the diocese of Kootenay and metropolitan (senior bishop) of the ecclesiastical province of British Columbia and the Yukon. His statement was read by the diocesan bishop of New Westminster, Michael Ingham, as part of the “Expressions of Reconciliation” session at the TRC regional event in Victoria April 14.
Privett offered an apology to the more than 2,000 survivors of Indian residential schools in the province who attended the event at the Victoria Convention Centre. “I am shocked, saddened and shamed by this legacy and the part our church has played in it,” said Privett, adding that he wanted to echo the words of apology given in 1993 by former primate, Archbishop Michael Peers. “I, too, am deeply sorry for the suffering our church has caused. ”
From the late 19th century to the mid-20th century, about 150,000 aboriginal children were removed from their homes and placed in residential schools as part of a federal program of forced assimilation. The Anglican Church of Canada operated 35 of these schools, including St. Michael’s residential school in Alert Bay, B.C. The Presbyterian, Roman Catholic and United churches also operated residential schools.
Privett recalled visiting the Anglican-run Chooutla Indian Residential School in Carcross, Yukon, when he was a young boy and thinking that residential schools gave aboriginal people the benefit of a good education.
“I have learned, however, how much of a failure they were,” he said. “It’s as if for me, a great curtain has been pulled back on the legacy of residential schools. They were meant to be a place of learning, but they failed to be so…They were meant to be a sign of Christian love, but they failed to be so.”
The residential schools separated families, denied children the love of their parents and left parents longing for their children, he said.
Privett said the Anglican church was committed not just to the work of the TRC, but to seeking healing and reconciliation of residential school survivors and their descendants. “I am personally committed to work with other church leaders in this movement,” he added.
As a symbol of the Anglican church’s commitment to support the healing journey, Anglicans in British Columbia presented a prayer shawl that was stored in the TRC’s bentwood box. Carved by Coast Salish artist Luke Marston, the box is a repository for “gestures of reconciliation” offered at every TRC event.
Many prayer shawls were knit by local Anglicans and provided to residential school survivors who attended the TRC hearings in Cowichan and Port Alberni, said Mary Parry. A member of the diocese of British Columbia, Parry has been active in “Returning to Spirit,” a healing and reconciliation program developed in 2001 by aboriginal groups and representatives of the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches.
Barb Atleo, a member of the program, suggested offering the prayer shawls after witnessing survivors being wrapped in blankets at a healing ceremony, said Parry.
Speaking at the TRC event, Atleo stressed the importance of working hard to achieve reconciliation. “Reconciliation is action. I had really strong opinions and ideas about the church and it was through Returning to Spirit that I was able to work through these hard issues for me,” she said.
Meanwhile, several survivors and children of survivors shared their experiences. Among them was Mary Vickars, whose mother was sent to the Anglican-run St. Michael’s residential school at the age of three. As a result of the emotional, psychological and physical trauma her mother experienced, Vickars was raised in a home where she was severely beaten by her mother. And in fact, the entire community, made up of residential school survivors and their families, was in “horrific turmoil,” recalled Vickars.
Still, she considers herself lucky. “I still had two parents, I still had six brothers and I wasn’t shipped off to a school,” she told the commission. Working on the land and reconnecting with her ancestors made it possible for her to forgive her late mother.
Videos of the proceedings at the TRC Victoria are available here.