In preparation for the upcoming First Nations worship service on Sunday July 16th, we are going to be sharing some background information to the congregation in order that we have a better understanding of Indigenous issues, cultures, and history.
Residential Schools and the United Church of Canada
Until 1969, The United Church of Canada was involved with Canada's "Indian Residential School" system, which resulted in a painful legacy for many Aboriginal people and their communities.
During the 19th and early 20th century, federal policies were under girded by a conviction that First Peoples needed to be assimilated into Western European culture. Children were removed from their families and communities to attend residential schools. By discouraging First Nations’ languages and cultural practices the schools played an important role in carrying out this policy of assimilation. There were day schools in some communities, but due to isolation and seasonal movements of First Peoples, it was often deemed more suitable to establish large residential schools in permanent settlements.
During the 19th century, both the Methodist and Presbyterian churches were highly committed to universal public education (for example, noted Canadian educator Egerton Ryerson was a Methodist minister). At the same time, there was little corporate understanding of the importance of cultural sensitivity in both education and gospel proclamation. Thus a mission goal of providing education and proclaiming the gospel was not tempered by respect for the existing culture, values and spirituality of First Nations.
With rare exceptions, the national policy of assimilation was not questioned by the churches. This uncritical approach to mission enabled the church to become an agent of government in promoting the schools. Between 1849 and 1925, the Methodists and Presbyterians operated a number of schools. In 1925, at the time of church union, the United Church assumed the responsibility for 12 schools of which the last one closed in 1969. The United Church also operated two residences (Kitimaat and Teulon) where children from out of the community attended day schools. In total, the Roman Catholic, Anglican Presbyterian and United churches operated some 130 Indian Residential Schools.
The United Church was involved in the following Indian Residential Schools: In British Columbia - Ahousaht, Alberni, Port Simpson, Coqualeetza; in Alberta – Edmonton and Morley; in Saskatchewan - Round Lake and File Hills; in Manitoba - Norway House, Brandon and Portage la Prairie; and in Ontario - Mount Elgin (Muncey). Of approximately 80,000 students alive today, about 10 percent attended United-Church run schools.
As the school system evolved, it was the federal government that set the standards and provided the funding (often inadequate) for the schools, and legally required children to attend. The church was involved in suggesting to the government potential principals for the schools and also hiring other staff. The name of The United Church of Canada was integral to the identity of the schools and, aside from a few voices rarely heard by those in power, gave unquestioned assent to the policy of assimilation that informed the school system.
In spite of the harm done by this system, some students speak positively of acquiring an education that allowed them to move forward in the “White man’s world,” to gain cross-cultural skills, and to provide leadership to their people in transition.
In the past 20 years, the United Church has begun a directed, prayerful, and concerted effort to become more informed and responsive to the harmful affects of the residential schools on First Nations peoples and cultures. In 1998, the church offered a formal apology to former students, their families and communities. In an amazing sign of God's grace among us, it has been the outstretched hands of many Aboriginal people that has offered an invitation to healing. The journey toward reconciliation requires a long-term commitment. Initial steps have included the church's Healing Fund, its participation in the claims settlement processes, advocacy for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, collaboration in the historic Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement, archival research and increased resources for reconciliation and right relations work.
Remembering the Children was a March 2008 multi-city tour by Aboriginal and church leaders to promote the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on residential schools.
Truth and Reconciliation Commission
Residential schools for Aboriginal people in Canada date back to the 1870s. Over 130 residential schools were located across the country, and the last school closed in 1996. These government-funded, church-run schools were set up to eliminate parental involvement in the intellectual, cultural, and spiritual development of Aboriginal children.
During this era, more than 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children were placed in these schools often against their parents' wishes. Many were forbidden to speak their language and practice their own culture. While there is an estimated 80,000 former students living today, the ongoing impact of residential schools has been felt throughout generations and has contributed to social problems that continue to exist.
On June 11, 2008, the Prime Minister, on behalf of the Government of Canada, delivered a formal apology in the House of Commons to former students, their families, and communities for Canada's role in the operation of the residential schools.
With the support of the Assembly of First Nations and Inuit organizations, former residential school students took the federal government and the churches to court. Their cases led to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history. The agreement sought to begin repairing the harm caused by residential schools. Aside from providing compensation to former students, the agreement called for the establishment of The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada with a budget of $60-million over five years.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC)
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada was a truth and reconciliation commision organized by the parties of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada had a mandate to learn the truth about what happened in the residential schools and to inform all Canadians about what happened in the schools. The Commission was officially established on June 2, 2008 and was completed in December 2015.
The Commission documented the truth of what happened by relying on records held by those who operated and funded the schools, testimony from officials of the institutions that operated the schools, and experiences reported by survivors, their families, communities and anyone personally affected by the residential school experience and its subsequent impacts.
The Commission hoped to guide and inspire First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples and Canadians in a process of truth and healing leading toward reconciliation and renewed relationships based on mutual understanding and respect.
The Commission viewed reconciliation as an ongoing individual and collective process that will require participation from all those affected by the residential school experience. This includes First Nations, Inuit, and Métis former students, their families, communities, religious groups, former Indian Residential School employees, government, and the people of Canada.
Calls to Action
The Commission published 94 "calls to action" urging all levels of government- federal, provincial, territorial and aboriginal - to work together to change policies and programs in a concerted effort to repair the harm caused by residential schools and move forward with reconciliation.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada website http://www.trc.ca/websites/trcinstitution/index.php?p=3