It is a hard truth to grasp…to say…to write…but the evidence points to the disturbing fact that Canada, the country I love, was founded upon ethnic cleansing. As if this truth is not horrific enough to digest in recent months fresh revelations surfaced that the Federal Government carried out inhumane bio-medical experiments on indigenous children in several provinces. I am deeply disturbed to learn that malnourished children—innocents, who were wards of the state—were used as guinea pigs and kept in a state of near starvation by nutrition experts who in some cases were employed by the Red Cross whose purpose is “to protect life and health and to ensure respect for the human being.” As the Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada observed in his statement on the issue, “It is another tragic chapter in the long once-hidden story of the Indian Residential Schools.”
The last of Canada’s residential schools closed in 1996, but most of us—two out of every three Canadians—don’t know the full extent of their dark histories. In our ignorance it is too easy to make false assumptions about the causes and solutions to the problems still facing Canada’s indigenous people.
From 1831 to 1996, more than 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Metis children were taken from their communities and sent to one of the 130 federally-funded boarding schools administered by Catholic, United and Anglican Church authorities. For decades there was no choice: if families did not hand over their children, they were forcibly seized.
Two primary objectives of the residential school system were to remove and isolate children from the influence of their homes, families, traditions and cultures, and to assimilate them into the dominant culture. The goal was to “kill the Indian in the child.”
The following comments to a CTV News story by “Elk Woman” poignantly convey the harmful legacy and human cost of residential schooling:
It took away our dignity, our way of life, our livelihoods, most of our languages, and so ever tragically, it separated us from our families. The residue of the schools still lingers in our communities, the dysfunction is alive and well. We are still fighting for wellness, to attain balance, to learn how to parent again, to touch, to feel, to love, to trust, to feel human again. Our youth have paid a dear price. They live or have had to live with dysfunction of all sorts, to not feel love from ones parent is abnormal. Self-hatred is prevalent for many of our people, but we are working on it. Give us time, help us to be who we once were, a proud and dignified people. This is what we are fighting for, dignity, respect and to take back what was rightfully ours, our dignity, our livelihoods, our land and our language. Residential school is only a slice of the pie that we have had to endure. Native people have always endured hardships, it has never been easy to be a Native person. I can’t think of any other culture whose abuses are continually on-going. It has never stopped. But we are getting stronger day by day. So next time you see a Native person, maybe give them a pat on the back and say, wow, you are still standing…
On September 22, residents of the Lower Mainland are invited to walk alongside our indigenous neighbors in the Walk for Reconciliation. Bishop Michael of the Anglican Diocese of New Westminster as well as Bishop Greg of the BC Lutheran Synod have stressed the importance of the participation of Christian churches in the Walk. Through our willing participation we will send the message that we are ready and willing to face the truth about the systemic racism and discrimination that was part of our nation’s history, and by our actions send a message of encouragement to our indigenous brother and sisters,
…Wow! You are still standing, and we stand together with you in remembrance of your painful past and in your struggle to heal and work towards a more hopeful future.
Some of us are afraid to go to rallies or talks on First Nations for fear of how we will be perceived. Where grace has made forgiveness possible, we need to accept it with humility and gratitude. Where the pain of suffering still cries out in protest and hot anger, we need to lay down our defensive shield, hear our brothers’ and sisters’ anguish and allow the flaming words of accusation to piece our hearts with compassion.
Our culture promotes a cult of “privatism” that draws us away from one another and promotes the belief that we are rugged individuals only responsible for ourselves and no one else. But our identity in Christ puts us in relationship to our neighbor with whom we are called to walk in truth. “So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbours, for we are members of one another.” (Ephesians 4:25) As Christians we are called be reconciled to our brother and then bring our gift to the altar. To participate in The Walk for Reconciliation is to move beyond shame and guilt. It is a walk in solidarity with our indigenous neighbors, acknowledging the sins of the broader Church and asking God to free our relationships of the consequences of those sins so that we may build a healthier future together.
In his first letter, John the beloved disciple of Jesus tells us, “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech but in love and action.” (1 John 3:18).
Have you got your walking shoes? See you on September 22!
[This post is adapted from an article by the same author published in the Summer 2013 edition of The Beacon, the newsletter of St. David’s Anglican Church, Tsawwassen, BC.]