‘We have a huge challenge to educate the church,’ primate says

Primate helps distribute cupcakes during a birthday celebration for former residential school students. Photo: Marites N. Sison
Published July 6, 2011

Inuvik—Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, said he sensed “a little less anger” in the way former residential schools survivors have shared their experiences at the recent Northern National Event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC).

“I sense that for a lot of survivors, they want to tell their story and they want to move on,” said Archbishop Hiltz, who participated in the June 27 to July 1 event. In an interview, the primate said the northern event had “a different feel to it” from the first one held last year in Winnipeg. “There has been a good spirit in this gathering.”

More than 1,000 former students, their families, representatives of government, churches and the public travelled by land, sea and air to attend the event held in Inuvik, a town of 3,500 people located two degrees above the Arctic Circle.

The primate said what struck him at the northern gathering was how survivors spoke about the impact of their residential school experiences. “Last year, it was very much about the [individual] impact,” he said, noting that many survivors spoke of being deprived of love and not learning how to love after they were forcibly taken from their homes to attend residential schools. At the Inuvik event, “We heard so many people say publicly to their wives, to their children, ‘I’m sorry’ for not having loved them in the way that they would have wanted,” Archbishop Hiltz said. “That has been very powerful.”

He was also struck by the “utter loneliness” that many former students felt while in the schools. “One survivor said he used to look up at the stars and wonder if his mother could see the same stars. She came to the school and he wasn’t allowed to see her,” Archbishop Hiltz said. The “emotional scars” from having been torn away from family and culture, he said, were distinct at the gathering. “One survivor said, ‘Couldn’t they just have loved us a little bit?’ ”

Archbishop Hiltz reiterated a statement he made at an earlier session about the church’s need to help address the necessity of long-term mental healthcare programs in indigenous communities.

He also stressed the need to train clergy and laity who provide pastoral care to aboriginal people to be aware of the history of the residential schools and its impact on the families of survivors and on succeeding generations.

“Unless you know that story and can understand that, you can’t effectively minister to people. We talk about missional context—well, this is a very distinctly missional context,” Archbishop Hiltz said. “Unless we know the history, we won’t know what people have been through, we won’t know what they have suffered, we won’t know what they’re coping with. We don’t know what they’re carrying that they can’t let go. And, we won’t know how to help them.”

The primate also said he would seek support from the House of Bishops to help give voice to the campaign of some Metis, Inuit and other aboriginal students who have been excluded from the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. Certain schools, although church-run, were not part of the federally-funded school system; they were funded by provincial governments or religious orders.

“I think that’s something that I could perhaps pick up with some of the bishops to see if we can make a statement of solidarity…. That would be entirely in order,” Archbishop Hiltz said. “Some of the survivors have called for that.”

The primate said his interactions with survivors have been “very gracious.” He said that the talent show, a new feature at the TRC event, was worthwhile. To listen to the survivors’ story and to watch them perform later in a talent show was “a contrast been tears and laughter…. For indigenous people, it’s all part of the way of life. They have a genuinely good sense of humour and they know how to embrace life. That was really good.”

Asked if any testimony particularly stood out for him, the primate mentioned a survivor named Paul, who declared, “I’m no longer number 148. I’m Paul. I have a right to live and I have a right to be happy.” The way he said it was “very, very powerful,” said Archbishop Hiltz. “That’s what needs to be the outcome of the TRC. That people are treated as individuals, treated with respect and their rights are recognized.”

The primate acknowledged that, “We still have a huge challenge to educate the church, let alone the country.”


  • Marites N. Sison

    Marites (Tess) Sison was editor of the Anglican Journal from August 2014 to July 2018, and senior staff writer from December 2003 to July 2014. An award-winning journalist, she has more that three decades of professional journalism experience in Canada and overseas. She has contributed to The Toronto Star and CBC Radio, and worked as a stringer for The New York Times.

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