Archbishop John Privett, bishop of the diocese of Kootenay and metropolitan (senior bishop) of the ecclesiastical province of British Columbia and the Yukon, said he has experienced “deeply moving” moments at the ongoing B.C. National Event hosted by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) here.
One such moment took place on Sept. 18 as people gathered for the “Survivors’ Walk and Procession” at the grounds of the Pacific National Exhibition during the opening ceremonies. Privett had found himself alongside Peter J. Alexcee, who was draped in a stunning blue and red Nisga’a button blanket, and they entered into a conversation. Alexcee shared his father’s story as an Indian residential school survivor. “For me, it was a gift, a wonderful moment in time when we could share that,” said Privett.
Hearing former students talk about their personal experiences in the schools has been “gut-wrenching,” but Privett said it is important to be present and to listen actively to these stories.
“It’s important in my role as archbishop to be here on behalf of the church and to bear witness to the stories and to hear survivors speak, and also to participate in acts of reconciliation on behalf of the church,” he said in an interview with the Anglican Journal. “The work of healing and reconciliation is always God’s work, so it never happens in my time or our time. It happens in God’s time and I think this is part of those Kairos moments where God is at work.”
Reconciliation requires “personal engagement in the truth-telling, the story-telling,” added Privett. “There has to be active listening in which we honour and respect what we hear. And there needs to be concrete follow up and action.”
Privett underscored the need for Anglicans across Canada to continue the work of healing and reconciliation between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people.
“We continue to walk as a national church in seeing a self-governing indigenous ministry in our church and that’s a long-term significant commitment,” which is part of the reconciliation process, said Privett.
Privett said he has been “extraordinarily impressed” with the work of the General Synod Archives and the diocesan/provincial archives, which have been providing photographs and other documents to former students present at the event and their families. “To watch that interaction is really a privilege…I’m proud of our church and to see its involvement here is a sign of our commitment to this process.”
Being at the event is also important to Privett on a personal level. He grew up about 30 miles from the Chooutla Indian Residential School in Carcross, Yukon.
“It was part of my youth and childhood. I knew many staff and clergy that were involved [in the school] and I knew that our church was intimately involved in the residential school work,” he said. “For me, as an adult now, to hear the developments and hear the stories is very, very important.”
Chooutla was one of over 30 federally funded residential schools operated by the Anglican Church of Canada from the late 19th century to the mid-20th century. The Presbyterian, Roman Catholic and United churches also operated residential schools.
Asked about views expressed by some Anglicans that the church had been doing God’s work when it run the schools, Privett said, “I believe that at that time, our church believed it was doing the right thing and doing good work; many staff served sacrificially for very low wages, and gave themselves. But what we’re learning now are the consequences that we couldn’t have imagined in those times and we need to hear that.”
Privett expressed the hope that “as the work continues, there will be reconciliation for all people.” But he acknowledged that this would likely take time. “There’s a lot of pain in this story for all of us-for those who were teachers, for those who were students, for the church, for the government, for Canadians,” he said. “It’s part of the ongoing work of reconciliation. We’re not done.”
Note: A correction has been made to this story. The blanket that Peter Alexcee is wearing in the photograph was originally identified as Nisga’a. The eighth paragraph has also been revised to reflect additional information.