‘We were so full of our own self-importance’: Primate apologizes for spiritual harm inflicted on Indigenous peoples

Canon Norm Wesley hears Primate Fred Hiltz's apology to Indigenous peoples on behalf of the Anglican Church of Canada. Photo: Milos Tosic
Published July 12, 2019


In a speech that stirred emotional reactions and caused members of General Synod to rise to their feet, Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada apologized on behalf of the national church for spiritual harm done to Indigenous peoples.

Delivering his apology to the gathering of General Synod July 11, Hiltz laid out a confession of the ways the Anglican church demonized, dismissed and actively discouraged traditional Indigenous spiritual practices.

“For such shameful behaviours, I am very sorry. We were so full of our own self-importance. To quote the Book of Common Prayer, we followed ‘too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.’ We were ignorant. We were insensitive. We offended you. And I believe we offended God.”

Several elders and Anglican Council of Indigenous Peoples (ACIP) members were gathered on stage as Hiltz spoke.

“For a number of years, since the Indigenous Covenant of 1994, there has been a call for an apology for spiritual abuse endured by Indigenous Peoples through the era of colonial expansion, and particularly through the era of the Indian Residential Schools,” said Hiltz. In Archbishop Michael Peers’ 1993 apology to survivors of the residential schools, Hiltz said, Peers expressed his remorse on behalf of the church, saying, “we tried to remake you in our image.”

“Tonight, I offer this apology for our cultural and spiritual arrogance toward all Indigenous Peoples–First Nations, Inuit and Métis–and the harm we inflicted on you. And I do this at the desire of many people in our Church, I do it at the call of the Anglican Council of Indigenous Peoples, and I do it at the request and with the authority of the Council of the General Synod.”

An embrace after the apology is read. Photo: Milos Tosic

Hiltz outlined the many ways the Anglican Church of Canada has caused spiritual harm to Indigenous peoples, including “failing to acknowledge that as First Peoples living here for thousands of years, you had a spiritual relationship with the Creator and with the Land. We did not care enough to learn how your spirituality has always infused your governance, your social structures and your family life. We did not care enough.”

He also confessed the sins of “demonizing Indigenous spiritualities,” belittling traditional teachings, “dismissing Indigenous spiritualities and disciplines as incompatible with the gospel of Christ,” declaring the teachings of the medicine wheel to be “pagan and primitive,” and “robbing your children and youth of the opportunity to know their spiritual ancestry.”

“I confess our sin in acts such as smothering the smudges, forbidding the pipes, stopping the drums, hiding the masks, destroying the totem poles, silencing the songs, stilling the dances, and banning the potlatches. With deep remorse on behalf of our church, I acknowledge the intergenerational trauma caused by our actions,” he said.

“With humility, I ask our Church to turn to the Creator seeking guidance and steadfastness of will in our efforts to help heal the spiritual wounds we inflicted. Let us as a church commit ourselves to learning how traditional Indigenous spiritual practices contribute to healing, and to honour them.”

Spotlighting the Calls to Action of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the church’s endorsement of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), Hiltz called for the church to move forward in reconciliation.

“I pray that the General Synod will be united in directing the Council of the General Synod to establish a committee to strategize and guide the ongoing work of truth, justice and reconciliation, including the building and supporting of a network of ambassadors for reconciliation from dioceses and regions,” he said, noting that their mandate would include “enabling healing for all who were deeply hurt by spiritual arrogance; helping the whole Church to learn from the spiritual wisdom of the elders and to listen with a heart to the spiritual hopes of Indigenous young people; and restoring spiritual teachings and ceremonies that were lost and celebrating them as a vital part of a gospel-based way of life.”

Hiltz also asked the church to pray for the Vision Keepers, the group commissioned at General Synod 2016 to hold the church “utterly accountable in respecting the right of Indigenous peoples to be self-determining,” and to be “extraordinarily generous in building up the Anglican Healing Fund.”

Hiltz called the church “in consultation with the Anglican Council of Indigenous Peoples (ACIP), to grow that much-valued resource in A New Agape from 2001, a new partnership between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Peoples in the Anglican Church of Canada” and to “fully endorse [ACIP’s]… Plan for Ministry shaped by the teachings of the elders, Gospel-based discipleship and commitments to a ‘Prophetic Pastoral Care’ rooted in ‘wholeness and healing in Indigenous community, freedom and joy.’”

Hiltz also noted the need to “draw elders into conversations regarding the practices of the past,” saying that at one time, the church banned expressions of Indigenous spirituality in Christian worship.

“Having seen the error of our ways we are now encouraging such expressions. Many of the elders have followed those bans out of loyalty to a church they love. Many of these have, at the same time, kept alive the values, ideals, and teachings of their own elders…. Today, we’re asking the elders, with utmost respect, to help guide us; to honour the wisdom and practice of the past and to live into a truly Indigenous expression of our faith in the future.”

Hiltz’s final call to the church was to “renew our commitment to our baptismal covenant, especially our vow ‘to respect the dignity of every human being,’ to ‘strive for justice and peace among all people.’ And in living this vow in a good way, to embrace the Seven Grandmother and Grandfather Teachings: love, respect, truth, honesty, wisdom, courage and humility.”

Members of General Synod stood as Hiltz finished speaking and as he embraced the elders, one by one.

“This is a good thing to do,” said ACIP partner Bishop Sidney Black in response. Black stated that he and the other elders would spend some time praying and reflecting on the document, and would “offer a response sometime prior to the adjourning of this meeting of General Synod.”

“For some of us, this is very moving, what we have heard, what we have witnessed,” said National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald. “Some of us will be a little shaky, because these are words that have been longed for, and in some places [it was] hard to imagine that they would come.”

MacDonald offered that Indigenous persons in attendance could come together and “talk, sit together and be with each other” following the close of the gathering.

The primate’s apology followed a screening of the Anglican Video-produced documentary “Doctrine of Discovery: Stolen Lands, Strong Hearts” and presentations from General Synod Reconciliation Animator Melanie Delva and the Primate’s Commission on Discovery, Reconciliation and Justice.

The full text of the apology is available on Anglican.ca.


  • Joelle Kidd

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

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