Out of the Depths (a settler’s reflection on the residential schools)

I’m going to go on a bit of a ramble here.

I made my first trip from my home in England to Canada at the age of eight, in September 1967. My dad and mum, my brother and I travelled by sea from Liverpool to Montreal, took the train to Edmonton, then flew north in a DC-6 to Cambridge Bay NWT (as it was then called), where my dad became the missionary in charge at St. George’s Anglican Mission. This was a five year commitment for him, and it was not anticipated that we would get out for any holidays during those five years.

However, the Diocese of the Arctic had neglected to inform my parents that the school in Cambridge Bay only provided education up to a certain grade level, after which I would have to go to Inuvik, to a residential school. This would happen very soon, and my parents were not prepared to send me away at such a young age. So, my dad backed out of his agreement with the Diocese of the Arctic, and we returned to England after only one year. 

Of course, I knew nothing about the reasons for this at the time; it was many years before I found out about them. But even if I had known, I’m sure it would never have occurred to me that there was a whole category of people in Canada who had no choice about this residential school experience—that there were children who were taken forcibly from their parents—that whole communities had been robbed of their children, and the children robbed of their parents, against their will. My parents exercised a choice. I had no idea how lucky I was that they had that choice.

I returned to Canada (again with my parents) in December 1975, at the age of 17. To be honest, the last thing I wanted was to move to Canada; I didn’t want to leave behind my friends and family and the familiar world i lived in, and I was determined that as soon as possible, I would return to the UK. Ironically, 45 years later, I’m the only member of the family still living in Canada! (I put it down to the love of a good woman!)

I went to Toronto to the Church Army Training College in September 1976 for a two year training course in evangelism. I would be working in the context of the Anglican Church of Canada, but strangely, our Church History courses included no Canadian Church History. Nothing. Nada. We learned all about the controversies of the Reformation and all the European stuff, but nothing about the history of missionary work and evangelism in Canada. And I certainly never heard about the Residential Schools.

After a year serving in Ontario, I married Marci in 1979 and we moved west to Saskatchewan. The parish I was serving in was Arborfield, Red Earth and Shoal Lake; Red Earth and Shoal Lake were First Nations communities. I helped lead services in those two communities Sunday afternoons, learned to sing hymns in Cree, taught religion classes at the government day schools at the two reserves on Tuesdays and Wednesdays every week, and had, I think it’s fair to say, a lot of exposure to First Nations people, language, and culture. 

But no one told me about the Residential Schools. Or if they did, I didn’t notice. What I could see was that the schools on the two First Nations where I worked were day schools, just like the ones I had attended, with the kids going home to their families at the end of the day. I had absolutely no idea that this hadn’t always been the case.

Looking back now at some of the books I read (especially some of Rudy Wiebe’s novels, and ‘I Heard the Owl Call My Name’), I can see that the residential schools were mentioned in them. But the full story was not told. I had no idea that the churches had run these schools on behalf of the government, or that children had been taken forcibly from their parents to attend them, and that they had not been allowed to speak their own languages or practice their ceremonies. This was never explained to me.

In 1988 we moved north to the Arctic, where I served as missionary in charge of two parishes, Aklavik 1984-88, and Holman (now Ulukhaktok) 1988-91. Here, at last, I began to hear the stories of the residential schools. Aklavik had been the site of two of those schools and their student residences (later moved to Inuvik). But still, I didn’t get the full story. In fact, this story was never told me by anyone in either Aklavik or Ulukhaktok (perhaps they assumed I already knew?). It wasn’t until First Nations people in the Anglican Church of Canada began to publicly tell their stories at general synods that I began to realize at last the full enormity of what had happened. 

After that, of course, I heard far more than I ever wanted to hear. Survivors were coming forward and sharing their stories, at general synods and other church gatherings. The stories made me physically ill. We heard about the physical and sexual abuse, the beatings, the loss of language and culture and ceremony and identity, the isolation from the love of family and community, the intergenerational trauma, the substance abuse, the suicide. All of it a consequence of a system run by people who thought this was a good idea, that it would help the people. That it was a good way to make them Christian (by force? Where did we get that idea from Jesus?).

Full disclosure: I also knew three people who had worked in the residential school system. As far as I could tell, they were not monsters. They seemed to be good people. Maybe, I thought, it had been a good system with a few bad apples in it. But gradually, I realized this was not the case. It was an evil system from the beginning, despite the fact that some of the people involved were good people.

In the late 1990s, residential school survivors began taking the Anglican Church of Canada, and its individual dioceses, to court. Sadly, for most of us, we didn’t sit up and take notice until First Nations people began using our own court system against us. And it quickly became clear that this process had the potential to shut down hundreds of little churches all across Canada. Quite frankly, in the dioceses where I worked, there wasn’t a lot of reserve cash. And in fact, one of our dioceses did go bankrupt and had to shut down.

Eventually a settlement was negotiated between the Assembly of First Nations, the Anglican Church of Canada, and the Government of Canada. A fixed amount of money was asked of the Anglican Church of Canada, and dioceses were asked to contribute to that sum. The Diocese of Edmonton had never had an Anglican residential school on its territory, but there was no question of us not taking part. Parishioners were asked to give, and many of us gave generously. We knew it was the right thing to do. Quite frankly, for most of us, we had no idea what else we could do.

But of course, the story was far from over. It was necessary for reparations to be paid, but money itself will not heal people’s trauma. And there was a bottomless well of trauma. When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission travelled across Canada, it stopped in Edmonton for a while. Again, the stories were told. Witnesses relived their pain. Many of the speakers were justifiably angry at the massive injustice that the government and the churches (including my church) had perpetrated on their people. Like many of my colleagues, I put on my clerical collar and went and sat in that hall, and listened. I thought it was something I had to do. I was an ordained representative of a church that had participated in this system. It was my responsibility to take ownership of the sin that had been committed.

What was my part in that sin? After all, I was brought to Canada as a seventeen year old boy by my parents. I was not part of the decision to establish or run residential schools. I had no power in the church. The last residential school in Canada was closed in 1996. I was first elected to General Synod in 1998. So it would be easy, and comforting, to say “I had no part in this system.”

But I don’t believe this is true. My personal sin was that I chose not to ask questions. From the moment I moved to Saskatchewan in 1979, it was clear to me that First Nations communities were plagued with social issues. No need to go into detail about them here (I have no desire to add to the stereotypes). My sin was not to ask the deeper questions. Why are things this way? What is the history? Why is there such a huge difference in quality of life between these First Nations communities and their non-indigenous neighbours?

I didn’t ask these questions. At least, not very often. And when I did, I asked the wrong people, and so I got an inaccurate story. (I actually suspected that it was an inaccurate story, but I chose not to pursue the issue).

Today, I’m doing my best to do better. I’m trying to educate myself, to listen to indigenous friends and colleagues, to learn a more accurate history, to think about the bad things that happen when the Church gets into a Christendom relationship with the State—in other words, when it carries out its mission from a position of coercive power, not a position of marginalization and humble service. To think about how easily we confuse the Gospel of Jesus Christ with white European culture. 

When it comes to systemic issues, I confess to feeling overwhelmed. I’m fairly sure that the majority of Canadian Anglicans know that a vast evil was perpetrated. We know the Church was wrong to get involved with that system. But we also know that in those days of Christendom, Church and State were so intertwined that no one saw any problem with it.

So I guess what I’m doing now is that I’m trying to pray, trying to listen, trying to live out a lifestyle of reconciliation, trying to follow Jesus in the midst of a world of systemic evil (to which, of course the human Jesus was no stranger). I confess that the whole thing often seems too huge for me to fathom. So I try to reduce it to bite-sized portions. I try to think each day about what it means for me to love my neighbour as myself. I, who was not forced to go to that residential school, when so many of my neighbours had no choice. 

It continues to astound me that I could go to a two-year training course at an Anglican institution in the 1970s and learn absolutely nothing about the history of the Anglican Church of Canada. Never mind the residential schools—I was taught nothing about the history of the church I was going to work in. At that point in time I had lived in Canada for a sum total of ten months. Perhaps the Church Army assumed its students would already know these stories. I have no idea. But I hope it’s no longer the case. I hope that every student at any sort of Bible college or theological seminary in Canada, of whatever denomination, is now required to learn about these stories, and to own them. 

At the end of the First World War, so many people cried ‘Never again!’ Sadly, that cry was not heard. Twenty-one years later, a Second World War broke out. Lessons had not been learned. Again, millions died.

When it comes to the Residential Schools and the worldview that produced them, I, for one, am crying ‘Never again.’ But am I actually learning the lessons? Am I practicing what it means to be a follower of Jesus from a position of weakness and vulnerability, not a position of power and coercion? Am I a good listener? Am I a voice for justice for the descendants of the original inhabitants of this land?

I don’t know, and maybe I’m not qualified to answer that question. All I can say is, I do want to make a difference. And I do believe in the hope of the Gospel, which is that God’s kingdom will come and God’s will be done on earth as in heaven. The future doesn’t have to look like the past. The future can be about love and compassion, rather than hate and exclusion. As a Christian, I’m commanded to seek that future, to ‘seek first the Kingdom of God, and God’s righteousness.’ I’m still figuring out what that means in practice.

I’d like to finish this reflection with a prayer from the Bible, from Psalm 130.

Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord;
    Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears be attentive
    to my cry for mercy.

If you, Lord, kept a record of sins,
    Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness,
    so that we can, with reverence, serve you.

I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits,
    and in his word I put my hope.
I wait for the Lord
    more than watchmen wait for the morning,
    more than watchmen wait for the morning.

Israel, put your hope in the Lord,
    for with the Lord is unfailing love
    and with him is full redemption.
He himself will redeem Israel
    from all their sins.

2 thoughts on “Out of the Depths (a settler’s reflection on the residential schools)

  1. Irene Hi

    Hi Tim ,

    I’m not in your diocese – just someone on your email list, because I responded to a CS Lewis blog you wrote. I’m not even Anglican, I’m United Church.

    Thank you very much for this reflection. Like many, I have been shocked and dismayed at the recent discovery in Kamloops. Like you in the past, I didn’t know much about it, but had inklings – that I had not bothered to follow up.

    This was a very insightful and thoughtful reflection. And your personal experience adds a lot to it.

    In 1998, the United Church did do a formal apology in regard to residential schools, but I was not very involved in the UC church then, and had many things going on in my life at the time. I was distracted. Which should not be an excuse. I knew residential schools had not been a good thing, but I was unaware of the degree of evil involved.

    Thank you very much for your reflections.

    Irene

    “Know that your kindness has a ripple effect upon the world.”

    >

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