Evangelical leaders reflect on the TRC report.
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Darren Roorda, Canadian ministries director of the Christian Reformed Church (second from left), at the Walk for Reconciliation, May 31 in Ottawa. PHOTO: MICHELLE HOGETERP
Six emotional years, thousands of sad stories, and 94 recommendations later, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) released its final report in Ottawa in early June. The executive summary, almost 300 pages long, called Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future, outlines the commission’s findings and includes several recommendations aimed at churches.
Reconciliation is not about "closing a sad chapter of Canada’s past," the report reads, "but about opening new healing pathways of reconciliation that are forged in truth and justice."
Among those present at the Ottawa event were staff from The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and leaders of affiliate denominations including Christian Reformed, Mennonite, Christian & Missionary Alliance, and Salvation Army. Other church leaders who could not attend have been following the hearings and reflecting on the churches’ part in the story of residential schools in Canada.
Reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples is important to Christians, says Darren Roorda, Canadian ministries director of the Christian Reformed Church, because "reconciliation is important to God. It’s our chief instruction given to us in the New Testament. We are to be reconcilers."
Before reconciliation can be fully realized, however, there needs to be a whole lot of truth. During its hearings across Canada, the commission received more than 6,750 statements from survivors, family members and others.
Just listening to the stories of residential school survivors was draining for many. "You almost want to shut down emotionally and say, ‘I can’t hear this anymore,’" says Willard Metzger, executive director of Mennonite Church Canada.
For Cheryl Bear of the Nadleh Whut’en First Nation in northern British Columbia, the stories hit close to home. The band councillor and associate professor at Vancouver’s Regent College attended many of the hearings, listening to the testimonies of people from communities she was familiar with.
"People I knew were so distraught," she says. "One of them said, ‘My heart physically hurts.’" Others were fine before they testified and broke down afterwards.
For some, it was the first time they had told their stories.
"I asked God what was happening," says Bear. "I felt like I heard the words, ‘This time, these events, are the answers to the prayers of your ancestors.’"
If Canadians don’t yet know the sad history of residential schools, they should. An official policy of assimilation adopted in the 19th century in the newly established Dominion of Canada essentially amounted to what some have called cultural genocide. Aboriginal people experienced loss of language, cultural practices, dignity and freedom to make their own decisions.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the residential schools established all across the country and run primarily by churches between 1820 and 1996. In their testimonies survivors gave litanies of these losses – brand new beaded moccasins thrown in the garbage, long hair lopped off, numbers replacing names, punishment for using their own languages, aching homesickness. In addition, physical and sexual abuse was rife in some schools.
Whole families were destroyed. Parents mourned the loss of their children. As adults, those children didn’t know how to parent. Coping strategies including alcohol and violence born of frustration ensnared many. And so it went through the generations.
In part, the TRC report gives vindication to Indigenous Peoples, says Terry LeBlanc, director and co-founder of several nonprofits including Indigenous Pathways and NAIITS: An Indigenous Learning Community. When Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued an apology in 2008 on behalf of the Federal Government, it was like admitting the government was wrong. The apology led to the commission, which was then a way for Aboriginal Peoples to say, "We were right" – right to resist the strictures put upon them that resulted in loss of culture, religion and language.
The long list of recommendations is directed at governments, industries, educational institutions, church organizations and other groups. "The recommendations are targeting multiple levels of society because breakdown occurred at all levels," says LeBlanc, noting that "imposed values" happened in all sectors.
The Mi’kmaq/Acadian scholar, who lives in Prince Edward Island, emphasizes recommendations in indigenous education (e.g. 9), including provincial fair funding plans for on-reserve schools. Funding currently is far behind that of other schools.
As a Christian steeped in indigenous culture, LeBlanc also wants churches to respect indigenous spirituality (48). The 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples includes the right to religious freedom, "and freedom from proselytism that denigrates," says LeBlanc.
That perspective "should fit with any Evangelical’s understanding" of sharing the Good News of Jesus, he says. Many past problems have stemmed from the belief that Christianity is culturally superior and that those who hear the message must heed it.
"I want to share that news with others, Native and non-Native," LeBlanc affirms, "but I want to present it in a way they can decline."
"The goal of every missionary was to work themselves out of a job," adds Bear. "That’s never really happened." She suggests non-Native ministry leaders set five-year goals of turning over leadership to indigenous Christians.
THE TRC REPORT AIMS TO OPEN "NEW HEALING PATHWAYS OF RECONCILIATION … FORGED IN TRUTH AND JUSTICE."
One of the resolutions (60) calls upon religious groups, especially those training workers to minister in aboriginal communities, to respect the culture and be mindful of past mistakes.
That is already happening, says LeBlanc, in Canadian seminaries such as Tyndale, Providence, Briercrest and Acadia.
In education and training, he notes, "Christian institutions are doing as well as, and in some cases far better than, secular institutions." But teaching in colleges and seminaries "needs to be more intentional."
Bear has been invited to church gatherings and colleges – Vineyard, Baptist and Mennonite, for example – to teach on aboriginal worldview issues.
The Christian Reformed Church already has aboriginal ministry leaders, says Roorda. Theologically, the denomination earlier accepted the idea that "You don’t really need to throw out native spirituality practices in order to do ministry well."
The denomination, through its Canadian Aboriginal Ministry Committee and aboriginal ministry centres, has been engaging churches "for quite some time," he says. The recommendations "create a different impetus" for the denomination to continue that task, through more teaching at the congregational level and through its close ties with many Christian schools. Still, he says, "It feels like there’s an awful lot of work to do."
At Mennonite Church Canada, says Metzger, "We’ve always had an active indigenous relations file and have been active in wanting to educate our people and recognize that we are all settler people. We still have a lot of work to do on that."
Some Mennonite congregations are now studying indigenous worldviews as part of their adult Sunday school curriculum and, where they are near indigenous communities, "seeing how they can very concretely build relations" with them.
Head commissioner Justice Murray Sinclair described the need for reconciliation as "a Canadian problem." To Metzger that means all Canadians, whether they directly contributed to the residential schools saga or not, have the responsibility to make things right. "It will take a concerted effort," he adds. "It will be easier to let it fade than keep it active."
Those who attended hearings were struck by the grace and forgiveness shown by people testifying.
Some of that "grace and resilience" comes from aboriginal culture, Bear explains. "We are a welcoming people."
After ministering in 600 First Nations across North America, Bear says for all Canada’s faults on these issues, "When I compare Canada to the U.S., we’re giant leaps ahead."
The six stressful years, the lengthy report and resulting recommendations should give hope, especially for reconciliation among the nation’s peoples. "I think story in itself is what is going to change Canada," says Bear. "If Canadians don’t know the truth, then how can they respond in any way?"
Debra Fieguth of Kingston, Ont., is a senior writer at Faith Today.