In depth: Indigenous self-determination measures pass in nearly unanimous vote

National Indigenous Anglican Archbishop Mark MacDonald receives a metropolitical cross upon the formation of a self-determining Indigenous Anglican church. Photo: Milos Tosic
Published July 13, 2019


In an historic vote, General Synod decided almost unanimously July 12 to approve changes to Canon XXII that enable a self-determining Indigenous church within the Anglican Church of Canada, and to bestow the title of Archbishop upon National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald, a position which now ranks among the metropolitans.

The vote was the culmination of a morning of presentations by the Anglican Council of Indigenous Peoples (ACIP) and the Vision Keepers, the council of Indigenous elders and youth established at General Synod in 2016 to monitor how the church would honour its commitment to adopt the framework of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

‘I now call you ‘Your Grace’’

The resolution passed by General Synod will allow the National Indigenous Ministry to make changes to matters specified in Canon XXII without requiring General Synod to amend the canon, putting matters such as the composition of ACIP, the composition of Sacred Circle and the ability of ACIP to create and change a constitution in the hands of Indigenous ministries.

The resolution also gives the national Indigenous Anglican bishop the title of archbishop. It specifies that the primate would always be an invited guest at Sacred Circle, with voice but no vote.

Because the resolution will change the church canon but does not constitute an issue of doctrine, the resolution required a vote in the orders of the bishops, clergy and laity, requiring a two-thirds majority in each to pass. It does not, however, require a second reading.

The vote passed nearly unanimously, with 98.2% of laity (108 votes), 98.8% of clergy (82 votes) and 100% of bishops (39 votes) voting “yes” to amending the canon.

Immediately after the results of the votes were announced—and a standing ovation from members of General Synod had subsided—primate of the Anglican Church of Canada Archbishop Fred Hiltz called all Indigenous members and partners of General Synod to the stage to witness MacDonald being installed as an Archbishop.

“There is a custom…that those who are called to the office of an archbishop bear what is known as a metropolitical cross,” said Hiltz. “So Mark, I now call you ‘Your Grace.’”

Hiltz, who was overcome with emotion, paused in his speech to embrace MacDonald before presenting him with the metropolitical cross, which was decorated by Saskia Rowley, graphic designer at the national office of the General Synod, with input from Indigenous Ministries Coordinator Canon Ginny Doctor.

“So you see on the cross there the four colours for the four peoples of the world. You’ll see she’s drawn the colour blue in the middle, blue of course being the colour of hope for the Indigenous peoples,” explained Hiltz.

There is also an eagle feather hung from the cross, “reminding us of the great text that is so dear to Indigenous peoples, the text from Isaiah: ‘Those who wait for the Lord renew their strength; they mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not grow weary, they shall walk and not faint.’”

A 25-year journey

The process of becoming a self-determining Indigenous church has been a long one.

In a presentation preceding the vote, members of General Synod watched an ACIP-produced video that traced the conversation around self-determination back to the time shortly after then-primate Archbishop Michael Peers’ 1993 apology for residential schools, cutting together video clips of Indigenous Anglicans and advocates speaking on the subject with a timeline of steps that led to the current resolution.

Canon Norm Wesley. Photo: Milos Tosic

Speaking to General Synod just before the vote was taken, Canon Norm Wesley said that watching the videos brought tears to his eyes.

“I watched the faces—the faces of people who were once young, and are now grey-haired. The faces of people who are no longer with us. There is no turning back, no matter what.”

In a press conference following the vote, Doctor responded to a question about whether she had ever lost hope throughout the 25-year process.

“Well, the way I see it is, it’s something that goes beyond 25 years. My people have long been oppressed, they’ve long had to deal with different kinds of things being taken away from them, but they never gave up. And I’m here, as an example of the resiliency that my people have,” she said.

Referencing a comment from the floor during discussion of the resolution, when the Rev. Lily Bell spoke of feeling the presence of her ancestor in the room, Doctor added, “I could feel it too, because they are still alive and we carry them in our hearts. Every one of those people who has passed on that you saw in the video, I knew them all—and I still carry their strength with me, because they were strong people. That’s what makes me strong, and makes others strong as well.”

Sheba McKay, delegate from the Indigenous Spiritual Ministry of Mishamikoweesh, added, “One of the things I’ve heard and have seen is that things don’t happen overnight.” Getting to this point “took a lot of time, a lot of tears, a lot of sweat,” she said. “Things like that, you just can’t rush it. You have to give it time in order for it to succeed, in order to have a foundation.”

Asked by the Journal whether it could be said that a self-determining Indigenous church now exists within the Anglican Church of Canada, Wesley noted that the development of such a church is a growing process. “What [Canon XXII] is going to look like in the eighth Sacred Circle, in the tenth, in the twentieth Sacred Circle, is going to be very different…. We are growing. So, is it the birth? No, it’s a growth, and the strengthening of the Indigenous church. There’s much more to do.”

“When you use the word ‘self-determining,’ and as Norm has said, it could be 20 Sacred Circles and we’ll still be working on some issues. But it is an action word, and one that means we are becoming, we are in the process,” added Still.

“You know, as much as we look at 25 years behind, and it’s even beyond that, it’s such a momentous moment for us. We stand collectively on that mountain of joy, rejoicing on the achievements that we made on the church. It will soon sink in to each and every single one of us here that there’s still a lot of work to be done. Now the real work begins. And we’re beginning to create this Indigenous self-determining church which we want, within our grasp, it’s so close we can just about smell it,” said Wesley.

Looking to the future

In their morning presentation to General Synod, ACIP members laid out plans for the future self-determining Indigenous church.

The church plans to focus on “the development and formation of disciples” through “gospel-based discipleship,” working with existing resources and institutions to provide leadership and training, and incorporating traditional Indigenous teachings and spiritual practices.

The presentation also touched on financial plans, including the assertion that Indigenous Ministry would “not allow non-stipendiary ministers to suffer on their own without stipend and support.”

Other financial strategies listed in the presentation were for the Jubilee Commission—the commission formed to find ways of funding the Indigenous church—to do its work; to “engage and empower the generosity and stewardship of our communities”; to “partner with the Anglican Church of Canada in providing resources for ministry”; to identify a group that will “develop a strategy for sustainable and repeatable ways to support our various ministries”; and to continue to “provide urgent support for our already developed ministries.”

During a press conference after the vote, MacDonald stated that addressing the issue of non-stipendiary clergy would be “one of our top priorities.”

“If we simply adopt the suburban model of ministry that’s used in most dioceses, we’re going to make a bottleneck that will make our capacity to do ministry almost impossible. We have the capacity and the horizon of growth, thanks in part to a robust birth rate among Indigenous people—the fields are ripe for harvest. So we need to do two things…increase our paid [people] and increase our volunteers at the same time.”

MacDonald also stated that the structure of the Indigenous church would be “fluid” and would not exactly follow the model of an ecclesiastical province.

MacDonald recalled an elder from the diocese of Ottawa who once came to see MacDonald despite the fact that the diocesan bishop was visiting her parish that day. “She said, ‘Bishop, I just had to come and be with my bishop.’… In other words, she had two bishops. I think a lot of Indigenous people are used to that. People feel they are citizens of Canada and citizens of their own nation as well.”

Bishop Kito Pikaahu addresses General Synod. Photo: Milos Tosic

Bishop Kito Pikaahu, Maori bishop of Te Tai Tokerau in the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia and general secretary of the Anglican Indigenous Network, offered some words of encouragement to General Synod during the morning’s ACIP presentation.

In an interview after the vote, Pikaahu told the Journal he felt “very blessed” to be present, “witnessing a very sacred moment and a very significant occurrence in the life and witness of the church—not just in Canada but, I believe, in the church worldwide.”

The outcome of the vote “spoke volumes,” he said “about the church’s acceptance of Indigenous ministries throughout Canada, but also the role and responsibility of the National Indigenous Anglican Bishop—who is now an Archbishop.”

Maori Anglicans have had a self-determining Indigenous church for nearly 30 years, Pikaahu said. “The decision that just happened today is how the Anglican Church of Canada really truly shows that a person is precious, honoured and loved as Archbishop Fred mentioned in his [apology]. And by doing that, I believe it’s an internal process by which the church monitors itself, in order to express truly an Indigenous spirituality within the church. I have a great sense of the fact that the Anglican Church of Canada can do it, and probably has a very good model in place,” said Pikaahu, adding that he saw “great signs of hope.” 

Vision Keepers resolution also passes

Judith Moses speaks to General Synod. Photo: Milos Tosic

General Synod also passed a resolution to make Vision Keepers, a commission of Indigenous elders and youth tasked with monitoring how well the Anglican Church of Canada enacts its commitment to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), a permanent forum.

In a presentation outlining the commission’s work, the Vision Keepers outlined several findings to help better align the church with UNDRIP. Some of these findings included the need for inventory, on a parish level, of reconciliation projects; more tools to assess and support local ministry; a need to engage youth in reconciliation; and a need for the church to “play a broader role” in political advocacy on key issues of reconciliation.

Vision Keepers member Judith Moses said, “We do not see this as a group of Indigenous people issuing a report card on the church.”


  • Joelle Kidd

    Joelle Kidd was a staff writer for the Anglican Journal from 2017 to 2021.

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