Archbishop Michael Peers, former primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, today said that much has changed in the church’s relationship with First Nations people since the historic apology he delivered 20 years ago for the church’s role in the Indian residential schools system.
“I think there is more understanding and wider sympathy in the dominant society than there was 20 years ago and I think that the churches have given an example that…apologizing is a serious business and it has got to be picked up,” said Peers in an interview with the Anglican Journal.
“In terms of being the leaven of society, there has been an improvement…because of the various things that have happened in the life of the church for which the apology was a spring-it unlocked some things,” he said, noting the significant steps that have been taken since he retired in 2004. He cited the appointment of the national indigenous Anglican bishop and the self-determining ministries of the church, among others.
Aboriginal and non-aboriginal relationships are growing in churches, Peers said, noting that his own parish in Toronto-Epiphany & St. Mark, where he is honorary assistant-has an advocate for aboriginal people even though the majority of its members are of eastern Caribbean descent. It’s a community that has its own struggles in Canada, but it has “a lot of awareness” about indigenous issues, he added.
But Peers acknowledged that some “significant gaps” still exist. “The Government of Canada made an apology, but nothing has happened since,” he said. At the church level, Peers said that he has not seen many young aboriginal people offering themselves up for ordination. “A certain generation understood the apology; they were closer to the events for which the church had to apologize than the present generation, [where] the church has not been a feature of their life, for good or for ill,” he said.
On August 6, 1993, Peers-then primate-acknowledged the church’s role in the system that, in the late 19th century to the mid-20th century, took native children from their homes as part of the government’s policy of assimilation.
“I am sorry, more than I can say, that we tried to remake you in our image, taking from you your language and the signs of your identity,” Peers had said in his apology delivered at the National Native Convocation in Minaki, Ont. “I am sorry, more than I can say, that in our schools so many were abused physically, sexually, culturally and emotionally.”
On August 6, 2013 Church House staff commemorated the landmark apology with a service at the Chapel of the Holy Apostles, in the church’s national office in Toronto. The primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, Archbishop Fred Hiltz, issued a statement saying that Peers’ apology and leadership “set our church on a new trajectory of healing, reconciliation and new life from which we can never turn back. ”
Peers preached at the service, which was officiated by National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald.
Peers recalled the events leading up to the apology, noting that the National Executive Council (now Council of General Synod) had passed a resolution requesting him to deliver a formal apology to aboriginal people on behalf of the church, at a time and place he saw fit.
After hearing one former student after another share their school experiences at the National Native Convocation, Peers said he felt that was the time and place to do it. He was faced with the challenge of saying “unequivocally that this is an apology” and he had to connect the apology with the wider church-which was celebrating the Feast of the Transfiguration-and with the wider world, which was commemorating the anniversary of the first use of nuclear warfare in Hiroshima.
In the end, Peers said in his apology: “This is Friday, the day of Jesus’ suffering and death. It is the anniversary of the first atomic bomb of Hiroshima, one of the most terrible injuries ever inflicted by one people on another. But even atomic bombs and Good Friday are not the last word. God raised Jesus from the dead as a sign that life and wholeness are the everlasting and unquenchable purpose of God.”
Peers memorized all 16 sentences of his apology. “I felt that I had to deliver them without text since nobody who spoke at the gathering had a text to read,” he said.
A healing service followed the apology, at which time elders were chosen to carry a fabric representing the four aboriginal colours of red, white, black and yellow. Peers was handed one of the fabrics, much to his surprise. “I’m rarely moved, but this was one moment,” he said.
The next day, much to Peers’ relief, Vi Smith, an elder, spoke on behalf of the convocation and accepted the church’s apology. “I had some anxiety the night before,” he said, noting how in 1986 the United Church of Canada “had a difficult time at their first turn, when their apology wasn’t accepted.”
Elsewhere in the church, however, Peers said that his apology received mixed responses. There were consequences for him personally and for the church, including litigation.
On a personal level, when churches, the federal government and former students arrived at a settlement agreement, which included the church’s establishment of a settlement fund of $25 million, Peers said he had a “difficult confrontation” with the Anglican Council of Indigenous Peoples (ACIP), which urged him not to sign it.
But there were moments of grace, he said, noting how dioceses, such as Niagara, contributed $1.9 million toward the fund even though they never had any residential schools.
Peers prefaced his recollection of events leading up to the apology by talking about his own background and his own interactions with indigenous people over time. Born in Vancouver, Peers said he grew up less than five miles away from the Musqueam Indian Reserve, near the mouth of the Fraser River. He recalled gatherings on Dominion Day where native people dressed in what locals thought were traditional finery, but were really non-traditional clothes from the plains, “similar to the ones in the movies, which was not part of B.C. aboriginal life at all.”
Today, he said, “B.C. art has come to take a huge place in all of Canadian life and it has altered perceptions since then.”
He also spoke of how, half a century later, he learned that during the war, native families in his community had donated meat coupons issued to them by the government, asking a local butcher to distribute them to whoever was in need.
“They hunted and fished for a living, so they said they didn’t need them,” he said.
After his ordination, Peers served in Ottawa, where he was aware that there were two young people who worked in residential schools in the Western Arctic. “We used to get letters from them and the assumption then was that they were doing ‘good things.’ ”
In 1969, Peers became a member of General Synod at a time of great debate triggered by Beyond Traplines, a report prepared by sociologist Charles Hendry, who was commissioned by the church to examine its relationship with aboriginal peoples. Hendry, whose report included first-hand accounts by former residential school students, urged the church to develop a new partnership with indigenous peoples based on “solidarity, equality and mutual respect.”
Peers noted that while the first resolution asking the church to “get out of the schools business” was first proposed in the 1940, it was not debated upon until then.
In the 1970s, Peers was among those tapped to help train native priests and he recalled a “riveting” experience with the Rev. Ellezer Beardy, one of the first native priests in the diocese of Keewatin whose son, Gordon, would later become Canada’s first native bishop.
While on a break, Peers, Beardy and some priests stood by Star Lake, near the Manitoba-Ontario border, and they saw a beaver swimming. “Ellezer called the beaver, and the beaver stopped, headed to the shore toward him and puttered up to him. Ellezer reached down to the beaver, blessed him and sent him on his way,” recalled Peers. “Nobody who was there will ever forget that. It said to many of us that there is a world in which we do not live, for which we have no experience whatever, and other people know, just because it’s always been their world.”
After Peers spoke, Bishop MacDonald and others present at the commemoration also shared their thoughts about the apology.
The Rev. Canon Laverne Jacobs, former indigenous ministries co-ordinator, said, “When I think about the apology, I think about the mending of relationships.” He thanked staff for their work on behalf of indigenous people, saying, “You make the apology real.”
The Rev. Canon Ginny Doctor, the Anglican church’s national co-ordinator of indigenous ministries, said the apology was “a powerful and significant moment” in the life of the church. On a personal level, she said, “it changed my own view of healing and my own relationship with the church.”
MacDonald noted how aboriginal elders in the U.S. often display photographs of John F. Kennedy and Elvis Presley in their living rooms, while in Canada, he has often seen a photo of Peers-some of them posters with his photograph and a copy of the apology, and others just of him alone. “It speaks to me of how important the apology has been,” said MacDonald.