World Council of Churches
Geneva, Switzerland
26 August - 3 September 2002

The United Church of Canada: working in solidarity toward reconciliation

          If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.

    (Lila Watson, Australian Aboriginal Woman)

    In the wake of the residential school story, The United Church of Canada is beginning to learn a new role-one of being in solidarity with Aboriginal peoples as we work toward reconciliation. First steps toward being in solidarity with Aboriginal peoples have taken the form of relationship building and actions of advocacy. However, these movements toward being in right relationship have not taken place in isolation from reconciliation efforts taking place in other countries where similar histories of oppression and abuse have left a legacy of pain among other first peoples. As you review the first steps taken by the United Church, it might be helpful to explore the reconciliation work that is paralleling and informing the mission of the church here in Canada. (See Appendix III, “Nations in Reconciliation and Reconciling Nations.”)

    First Apology and the First All-Native Conference
    In 1986 the Moderator of The United Church of Canada apologized to First Nations peoples within the United Church for the times in which the church had linked acceptance of European culture and the corresponding suppression of First Nations cultures to the sharing of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

          Apology, 31st General Council, August 15, 1986
          Long before my people journeyed to this land, your people were here, and you received from your elders an understanding of creation, and of the Mystery that surrounds us all that was deep, and rich and to be treasured.
          We did not hear you when you shared your vision. In our zeal to tell you the good news of Jesus Christ we were closed to the value of your spirituality.
          We confused Western ways and culture with the depth and breadth and length and height of the gospel of Christ.
          We imposed our civilization as a condition of accepting the gospel.
          We tried to make you like us and in doing so. we helped to destroy the vision that made you what you were. As a result, you, and we, are poorer, and the image of the Creator in us is twisted, blurred, and we are not what we are meant by God to be.

          We ask you to forgive us and to walk together with us in the spirit of Christ so that our peoples may be blessed and God’s creation healed.

    Building Relationships
    After giving the apology, Robert Smith, Moderator, spoke the following words to the members of the Native community and the 31st General Council as they gathered around the fire near the teepees:

    I wish to thank the people of the Anishinabe Nation for this opportunity to speak in their home. I thank the Native people who are part of The United Church of Canada for the gracious way in which on behalf of the General Council I have been received. I want to tell you what has happened to all of us tonight ....The issue is not the gospel of Jesus Christ. The issue is the imposition of the European civilization, language, dress, values on a proud people as a condition for their hearing of the gospel of Jesus Christ. We came to an understanding as a people. We needed to ask for the forgiveness of the Native peoples of Canada for our part in the destruction of their culture, for our part in the denial of the richness of the vision which the Great Spirit has given in trust to them. We do that recognizing the part which the church has played in enabling people of all sorts of traditions to hear of the will of God for liberation, for dignity, for wholeness, for peace, for justice. We arrived, as I said, at that significant consensus. I came here after we had prayed together and asked forgiveness of God. I came here to this place and was graciously received by the elders in the teepee on my right and after they had welcomed me and after I had told them of my actions, I read them the statement which was read to the General Council.

          “We have to dance.”
          Some of us had a deep fear about what it would mean if the church refused to make an apology. But I have an image that will always stay with me. One of the elders said, “We will have the drum group come.” There was a discussion about that; then someone said, “What if the church doesn’t apologize?” The elder’s response was, “Well, it doesn’t matter. We have to dance whether they apologize or not.” That positive framework of being a people, no matter what the church did, was for me the moment of a statement of liberation.

    (Stan McKay, former Moderator of The United Church of Canada Stan McKay and Janet Silman The First Nations: A Canadian Experience of the Gospel-Culture Encounter. (Geneva: WCC Publications) 1995.

    It is important to note that an acknowledgement of wrongdoing is just the first step in walking the road of repentance. Apologies need to be followed by concrete acts which demonstrate that the church is committed to living in a new way in its relations with First Nations peoples. For this reason, the 1986 apology has been “joyfully received,” but not yet accepted by the Aboriginal community.

    Wherever possible, words of apology are lifted from the printed text and spoken person-to-person, church to First Nation. This is a challenging venture for the church since there is not one First Nation to which the apology needs to be delivered, but many. (It is for this reason that the General Council in 2000 commissioned past Moderators to deliver words of apology on behalf of the church.)

          The All Native Circle Conference
          In 1988, the General Council held in Victoria supported a request by Aboriginal members to form their own Conference with the United Church. The All Native Circle Conference spans a number of United Church Native congregations across Canada, with the exception of Native churches in British Columbia, These churches decided to remain part of their existing Presbyteries.

    Repentance for Its Role in Residential Schools

    In 1997 the General Council committed the church to a journey of repentance in relation to its role in the residential schools system.

    Statement of the 36th General Council

    Having heard and considered Petition 78, entitled Residential School Apology and Petition 79, entitled An Apology from St. Andrew’s United Church for Harm Caused by `Indian’ Residential Schools, and having considered presentations by the First Nations consultation to this General Council and table group responses, and having listened to the stories of a former student and a former Christian educator in a residential school, and having consulted widely with resource people and First Nations commissioners, therefore be it resolved that the 36th General Council adopt the following statement:

      Jesus said, “When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go: first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matt. 5:23-24)

      We now realize that the offering of the churches and of countless faithful and caring servants of the churches, through their participation in the residential school system, has tragically resulted in pain and suffering and injustice for many.

      Whereas the United Church supported the residential school system; and

      Whereas the Native residential school system contributed in a primary way to the uprooting of Native societies and to the rejection of Native culture by removing children from their communities and by denying them access to their language, traditions, and spirituality; and

      Whereas those losses were compounded in many instances by a wide variety of profound injustices and acute deprivations; and

      Whereas the destructive consequences of the residential school system continue to this day; and

      Whereas an individual has been convicted of numerous counts of sexual and physical abuse in connection with the Port Alberni Residential School; and

      Whereas systemic racism makes it difficult to hear the pain of our brothers and sisters; and

      Whereas any healing initiative will be inadequate in the absence of a clear statement of repentance and contrition by the United Church; and

      Whereas such a statement would set a positive example that the Government of Canada should be persuaded to follow;

    Therefore be it Resolved that the 36th General Council

    1. recommit ourselves to living out the apology of The United Church of Canada to Native congregations offered in 1986, and specifically the fourth paragraph which states: “We imposed our civilization as a condition of accepting the gospel. We tried to make you like us and in so doing we helped to destroy the vision that made you what you were. As a result you and we are poorer and the image of the Creator in us is twisted, blurred, and we are not what we are meant by the Creator to be”;

    2. acknowledge the role that the federally-funded and controlled residential school system has had in the suffering of Native peoples, in their loss of wholeness, of life, of language, of culture, and of spirituality, and our role in that system;

    3. express our deep regret and sorrow to the First Nations of Canada for the injustices that were done and for the role of The United Church of Canada in the Native residential school system, and as part of our expression write an open letter to the First Nations of Canada;

    4. continue dialogue and consultation with the First Nations of Canada in order to consider appropriate means to express our repentance and to take further steps along the healing path and towards reconciliation;

    5. urge individuals, congregations, Presbyteries/Districts, Conferences, and Divisions and the Ethnic Ministries Council of General Council to learn directly from Native persons their experiences in residential schools and/or to study resources such as those provided by The Healing Fund;

    6. urge individuals, congregations, Presbyteries/Districts, Conferences, to join the General Council in petitioning the Government of Canada to accept the Government’s responsibility for the abuses of the residential schools and to take meaningful steps immediately to redress those abuses.

    A Second Apology

    In 1998, the General Council Executive formally apologized for its complicity in the system. It did so because the church had heard the stories of suffering wrought by the separation of children from communities and families, the suppression of culture and spirituality, and stories of sexual and physical abuse which occurred in residential schools. The apology arose out of a sense of a corporate sin of commission for those times in which we had participated in the system. It was also tied to the sin of omission for those times in which we had not spoken out corporately against the national policies and practices which gave rise to the school system.

          “We pray that you will hear the sincerity of our words today and that you will witness the living out of our apology in our actions in the future.”

    To former-students of United Church Indian Residential Schools, and to their families and communities:

    From the deepest reaches of your memories, you have shared with us your stories of suffering from our church’s involvement in the operation of Indian Residential Schools. You have shared the personal and historic pain that you still bear, and you have been vulnerable yet again. You have also shared with us your strength and wisdom born of the life-giving dignity of your communities and traditions and your stories of survival.

    In response to our church’s commitment to repentance, I spoke these words of apology on behalf of the General Council Executive on Tuesday, October 27, 1998:

    “As Moderator of The United Church of Canada, I wish to speak the words that many people have wanted to hear for a very long time. On behalf of The United Church of Canada, I apologize for the pain and suffering that our church’s involvement in the Indian Residential School system has caused. We are aware of some of the damage that this cruel and ill-conceived system of assimilation has perpetrated on Canada’s First Nations peoples. For this we are truly and most humbly sorry.

    “To those individuals who were physically, sexually, and mentally abused as students of the Indian Residential Schools in which The United Church of Canada was involved, I offer you our most sincere apology. You did nothing wrong. You were and are the victims of evil acts that cannot under any circumstances be justified or excused.

    “We know that many within our church will still not understand why each of us must bear the scar, the blame for this horrendous period in Canadian history. But the truth is, we are the bearers of many blessings from our ancestors, and therefore, we must also bear their burdens.

    “Our burdens include dishonouring the depths of the struggles of First Nations peoples and the richness of your gifts. We seek God’s forgiveness and healing grace as we take steps toward building respectful, compassionate, and loving relationships with First Nations peoples.

    “We are in the midst of a long and painful journey as we reflect on the cries that we did not or would not hear, and how we have behaved as a church. As we travel this difficult road of repentance, reconciliation, and healing, we commit ourselves to work toward ensuring that we will never again use our power as a church to hurt others with attitudes of racial and spiritual superiority.

    “We pray that you will hear the sincerity of our words today and that you will witness the living out of our apology in our actions in the future.”

    Moderator, Bill Phipps