Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) member Marie Wilson has commended the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC) for taking an active role in forging reconciliation between Canada’s indigenous and non-indigenous people even though it is not one of the churches implicated in the Indian residential schools system.
By standing up and claiming reconciliation as a vital issue, the ELCIC has offered “an honorable response” to the TRC’s mandate that reconciliation must be the work of the signatories to the 2007 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA) and the people of Canada, said Wilson. A key component of the IRSSA, the TRC’s key mandate is to gather the statements of former residential school students and others affected by its legacy and to educate Canadians about it. From the mid-19th to the 20th century, churches – including the Anglican Church of Canada – operated 130 schools for more than 150,000 First Nations, Metis and Inuit children as part of the federal government’s forced assimilation policy.
Wilson gave a keynote address at a gathering of more than 250 delegates from the ELCIC’s Eastern Synod held June 26 to 29 at the International Plaza Hotel, in Toronto. The meeting was part of an effort to build “right relationships” with indigenous people in Canada.
While the TRC’s work will officially end in June 2015, “the work of reconciliation is just beginning,” said Wilson. “It is not for me to define for you what reconciliation means, (but) we have been saying in a general way that it is about restoring respectful relations…It is about creating conditions where peace is possible in one’s heart, in one’s home, in one’s family, in one’s community and in one’s country.” She quoted an aboriginal elder from Alberta who talked about the need for “an ethical space where indigenous and non-indigenous views can come together so that we can find the parallels of truth, love and honour.”
From her own perspective, Wilson said reconciliation is about change and transformation. “The status quo is not going to get us anywhere. If nothing changes, nothing will change.”
Wilson said there was a correlation between residential schools history and the over-representation of indigenous people in the country’s child welfare system, emergency room wards, prisons and correctional system, and in graveyards.
“We not only have important, but urgent work to do as a society,” she said, adding, “How long will we allow it to be acceptable for us as a country that we have one of our founding nations living in abject poverty?”
Wilson acknowledged that educating Canada about the residential schools legacy has been a “daunting” task. “I’m grateful that you’re here in the spirit of learning and pondering what to do…(with this) huge job of inspiring reconciliation…”
She expressed hope that the work that the TRC has begun “will mark and transform our country so that we will begin to know each other for the first time because most of us, honestly, have grown up not knowing each other…So many of us grew up not knowing about residential schools.”
Meanwhile, National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald, who also spoke at the gathering, urged churches to go beyond apologies and confront institutional evils that allowed the residential school system to happen.
“As institutions, we’ve acted like other institutions, maybe a little bit better. At times we’ve been courageous in our apologies, at times we’ve been sacrificial in some of the responses we’ve made,” said MacDonald. “But beyond saying that we’re not going to do it again, I don’t think we’ve really gone into the heart of our participation in these kinds of evils.”
While churches understand individual reconciliation, it doesn’t understand corporate reconciliation, added MacDonald. “We understand individual repentance and forgiveness, we don’t seem to be good at corporate repentance and forgiveness.”
Churches need to discover “who we are in Christ, and that means we have to know what it is as a people to repent and to seek healing,” said MacDonald.
Dr. Allen Jorgenson, assistant dean and associate professor at Waterloo Lutheran Seminary, for his part, said reconciliation did not begin with Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s apology to indigenous people in 2008 even as he acknowledged that it was necessary and important. “Reconciliation is a plant that God placed in a garden at the beginning of time. God planted and God continues to plant reconciliation where there is brokenness,” said Jorgenson, who spoke at the event. “It grows in a soil of First Nations truth telling. It grows in the soil of church repentance. And it grows in the light of prayer.”
Jorgenson also offered some advice to foster reconciliation, including practicing vulnerability. “Recognize the truth that you are already vulnerable, dependent on God and dependent on the land,” he said. European settlers at the first year of contact wouldn’t have wouldn’t have survived winter “without the hospitality of Turtle Island’s First Nations,” he said. But they soon forgot their dependence on God, on land and the people of the land, he added. “Too soon they eschewed vulnerability and took on a posture of mastery.”
He emphasized the need for honesty, saying, “You need others, you need this land, you need the people of this land. We’re all in this together.”