I have not written in 8 years on the topic of First Nations, residential schools or any related topic and in that 8 years over 400 News and Notes have gone out: today makes up some of that ground. I have been remiss in not doing so. However, in a kindly but firm fashion, if there is some discomfort with today’s rather strong topic the past omissions will need to be taken into account. Today’s newsletter represents a very difficult topic. It is not difficult because it makes people uncomfortable. On this particular topic being uncomfortable is irrelevant. It is a topic that is often evaded by evangelical Christians. It is a topic that is often imagined to belong on the margins of Canadian historical experience and, even if we do talk about it, the responsibility is placed on mainline Christians and Roman Catholics.
It should be noted at the very beginning that while Evangelical Churches did not run residential schools, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada has been extremely clear that we have a collective responsibility as Canadians, human beings and Christians that implicate us in this issue; even if it is often about our silence. Also, I know of many Roman Catholic residential schoolteachers who did good work and were not implicated in these terrible events. I am sure many of you know folk from other traditions of which the same is true.
I’ve always been chagrined that some Christians felt superior to United, Roman Catholic and Anglicans because they ran residential schools. After all, smaller Christian denominations were not entitled, socially influential, nor numerically larger than other believers that the aforementioned groups had. Let’s face it – many smaller denominations would have participated in such a venture if only they would have been asked. Evangelical Fellowship of Canada has publically apologized. So have, with some exceptions, MOST of the church sponsors of the residential schools. The residential school issue is something to work through to collaboratively address other issues within the First Nations communities.
I must confess that I have trouble with the title of ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission’ because it seems borrowed from apartheid South Africa but I must also observe there are a lot of similarities to make anyone feel more than a little troubled. I remember how difficult these issues can be. The poverty of the First Nations folk I knew as a kid, the anger between two communities, the painful, destructive and poverty-ridden conditions of reserve based and urban-based First Nations folk. There are also some encouraging, contrasting stories of economic success like the Osoyoos band in British Columbia and other places.
The letter you are about to read is written by Susan Ferguson: a lawyer, the moderator of Kitsilano Christian Community church and a friend. Her writing is clear, her position as a Christian is a matter of conscience and conviction. She has a right to both. Her treatment of this topic does not sensationalize or radicalize the material. It has much in common with my research, conversations and interest in this area that pushes back over a dozen years.
I was invited and attended the first meeting of the faith based ‘Truth and Reconciliation’ group in BC and subsequently asked Rev. Jodi Spargur to represent me, and the denomination, in future discussion. She is a credible, godly and compassionate individual, pastor of the DTES ‘God’s House of Many Faces’ and someone I am proud to associate with.
There are several churches that will be participating in this walk. I would ask that on Sunday, September 22, that at some point in your service and in your personal prayers that you will remember the on-going task of relationship between the many different communities in this country and notably this relationship in particular.
Residential School History
I’m here to talk about the Walk for Reconciliation that our church is participating in on Sept 22 in place of our usual service in this building.
What is the Walk for Reconciliation and why are we taking part?
If you don’t know a lot about the residential school system in Canada then the fact that there is a walk for reconciliation won’t mean much.
We as a society aren’t well informed about the residential schools and their effect on aboriginal people of Canada. Most have heard about the horrific long-term sexual abuse that went on at many of the schools, but may not know much beyond that.
What I am going to tell you comes from a historical document prepared by the Truth & Reconciliation Commission. It’s called ‘They Came for the Children’. It’s over 100 pages long, and the contents make difficult reading.
When the government of Canada entered into treaties with First Nations people, First Nations people asked for schools. They wanted day schools on their reserve land, to teach their children English and equip them to deal with “white society”.
What they got was the residential schools. These were set up by the government with the express purpose of assimilating Indian children into white society – “killing the Indian in the child”. The way they set about doing that – again, this was explicit policy – was to sever the ties between the child and its parents & community, by removing them from their families and their communities and placing them in the residential schools deliberately set up hundreds or even thousands of kilometres away from the reserve lands.
The reason the government did this is because if the aboriginal people were assimilated into white society, then there would be no one who met the legal definition of Indian, the reserves could be broken up, and the government’s treaty obligations would end. This isn’t a conspiracy theory – it’s a matter of record.
The government set up this system, and then discovered how expensive it would be for the government to run it. So they turned it over to churches and missionary societies to run because it was a lot cheaper.
From then on, the government failed to fund the residential schools adequately, failed to supervise them and when its failings were obvious, early on, governments over the years allowed it to continue. Staff at the schools, people with the government, church leaders, complained, but if it was going to cost money, it wasn’t done.
To understand the residential school system, stop and think of your child – if you don’t have children, think of a child you care about. If your child is between 5 and 16 years old, you have to send them to a residential school. If you don’t send them voluntarily, the police will come to seize them.
These residential schools are not a variation on English boarding schools. They are modeled after reformatories, because the people who set them up believe that your children are savages.
When they are there, they are forbidden to speak English and they will be punished if they do.
Even taking into account different attitudes to corporal punishment over the years, your child will be subjected to punishment that no parent would ever consent to. Solitary confinement, bread and water and flogging will not be unusual. Your child may be sexually abused. There’s no outside supervision or oversight of these schools or the people in them and no one to protect your child from predators.
Your child will be hungry most of the time. The food he is served may be very poor quality and there definitely won’t be enough of it.
If your child tries to run away to come home to you, they probably won’t make it. If they evade the adults who are out to capture them, they may die in the wilderness. If they are caught and brought back, they’ll be punished in front of the rest of the school in a way that is meant to discourage any other children from trying.
There’s a 1 in 4 chance that your child won’t be coming home – as much as 1 in 2 depending on where they are sent. Those children will die, of disease, which spreads quickly because of overcrowding; during escape attempts; or as a result of malnutrition, or physical abuse, or suicide. You may not ever know why they died, or where they are buried.
If your child is one of the ones who does come home, they will have spent their time at school learning to be ashamed of you and everything you do. You will have spent your time living in a community without any children over the age of 5.
They’ve been at school, but they may have spent 10 years there and emerge with a Grade 2 education. They have probably been taught by people who were untrained or inadequately trained as teachers. The teachers are paid less than those who teach white children, so the system is not designed to attract the good ones.
In the end, most of your children leave the residential school not fitting anywhere, not functioning anywhere, not belonging anywhere. Because of racism, they don’t have opportunities in white society.
And then those children, coming out of years of emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, have families and children of their own. And the sins of the residential schools are visited on their children for generations.
This went on in Canada for over 100 years. The last residential schools closed in the 1990’s.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is going to be in Vancouver from Sept 16 to 22, to hear and record the stories of the survivors of the residential schools. At the Coliseum all week there will be opportunities to learn about what happened in Canada in the residential school system, and to hear from and talk with those survivors. And on the last day, Sept 22, there is the Walk for Reconciliation, at 9:00 on Sunday morning, and Kits Church has chosen to be there as our Sunday morning act of worship.
What is the walk for reconciliation and why is Kits Church taking part?
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission bills the event as a chance to move forward into a new relationship between First Nations and the rest of Canadians, which sounds very grand.
For me the walk is simple. I am going to walk because so much of the wrong that was done in the residential schools was done in the name of Jesus Christ. I am going there to be a different face of the church, a different face of Jesus, to people who have been hurt by others who said they were acting in the name of Christ.
It’s important that it happens on a Sunday morning instead of church service to show that it is important to us, not something we do in our spare time, if we feel like it. It is an act of service and an act of worship.
I hope you’ll join me.