The following are the notes from Marion Best for her presentation at the Spring Presbytery.
The Apology – United Church of Canada and Indian Residential Schools
Although we have been deeply involved in dealing with the aftermath of our Residential School involvement for nearly 20 years, there is still a lack of knowledge and understanding both in our churches and in the Canadian population as a whole. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, named by the Federal Government four years ago, will be visiting B.C. in September and we hope there will be large numbers of non-Aboriginal people in attendance. There will likely be a hearing in this region as well as the major event in Vancouver September 18-21. “Reconciliation Canada” has events planned for September 17-22. Check their website.
A little background on Indian Residential Schools whose goals were to Christianize and to assimilate Aboriginal Peoples. It was designed to move all Aboriginal peoples from what was deemed their “helpless savage state” to one of “self reliant civilization”. Education was deemed the best solution to what was referred to as the “Indian problem”: “Take the Indian out of the child” was the slogan.
The children should adopt the values of the dominant society: cleanliness, obedience, respect, order, neatness, honesty, thrift, self maintenance, charity and industry. Christianity was to supplant Aboriginal spirituality so there was no place for Aboriginal beliefs or rituals. Instruction would be in English or French and in some places they were punished for speaking their native language.
Their hair would be shorn when they entered the school and they would wear European clothing. A life of seasonal hunting and gathering would be replaced by order and routine run by clocks and bells. Their unorganized games and activities were replaced with brass bands, football, baseball and hockey where the children learned the value of rules and discipline. Thus children were separated from their families physically, spiritually and culturally.
Buildings were poorly built and badly maintained and overcrowded which put strains on both students and staff. The food was lacking in both quality and quantity. As early as 1906 the government admitted that the financial ills of the schools lay in underfunding. In 1938 the per capita grant to the schools was $180 while in Manitoba the province paid $642 per capita to the School for the Deaf. The inadequate per capita grants put tremendous pressures on the principals and administrators of these church run schools and the government left it to them to deal with how to meet the costs of the operation. Charity clothes, meagre amounts of food and the students’ work on the farm were all ways that were used to balance budgets. The United Church ran 13 schools in B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba from 1925 until 1968.
Many children died from TB and other infectious diseases and some ran away and never returned home. Those who went home after completing the education that was offered found they did not fit in the Aboriginal culture and they experienced racism in the mainstream culture. They didn’t fit in either world.
As I began my term as Moderator in the fall of 1994 national staff shared with me the brief the United Church had submitted to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples that was being conducted across the country at that time. In our brief, the United Church acknowledged harm had been done through loss of language, culture and spirituality through the schools. Although sexual abuse had surfaced at a number of schools administered by other denominations, I remember saying how relieved I was to know there had not been any charges of sexual abuse in our schools. The reply was, “Don’t be so sure.” Within two months Arthur Henry Plint, a dorm supervisor in the United Church run Alberni Indian Residential School in the 1960’s, plead guilty to charges of sexual assault laid by 16 former students. He was sentenced to 11 years in prison and has since died.
Shortly afterwards a group action civil suit was launched against the United Church and the federal government by 28 plaintiffs (which included those 16) plus another 12 and another single suit, all asking for compensation as the result of physical and sexual abuse suffered at the Port Alberni school during the 1950’s and 60’s. Willie Blackwater was the spokesperson for the group action.
In May 1996 I paid a visit to the Port Alberni community along with two staff of the General Council along with Rev. Kathy Hogman and two parishioners from St. Andrew’s United Church in Port Alberni. We visited the site of the residential school and had conversations with survivors of the school including some who were involved in the suit against the United Church. The meeting was hosted by the leaders of the Nuu-Chah-Nulth Tribal Council.
I will never forget that meeting. Again and again the stories were told and the leaders sought an apology from me for our role in residential schools. They expected I would give an apology as the designated leader of the United Church. It was something I was not entitled to give. I could only convey an apology that had been approved by the General Council or its Executive. I left that meeting with a very heavy heart.
I then met with members of St. Andrew’s United Alberni Congregation and subsequent to that meeting they decided to educate their members about the residential schools with the intention of having their congregation host a Feast for 650 members of the Nuu-Chah-Nulth Band where they would offer an Apology for the harms done by the Residential School system and for the part the United Church had played. Kathy recounts the story of that gathering where tears were shed on all sides and healing began to take place.
At Conference meetings across the country prior to GC 36 in 1997, only BC Conference through its Task Force on Residential Schools and Pt. Alberni United Church, with concurrence from Comox-Nanaimo Presbytery, were asking for an Apology to be given. East of the Manitoba/Ontario border there was little interest in the matter and the only two petitions asking for an Apology came from B.C. Conference.
The 1997 General Council in Camrose took the following actions:
- they reaffirmed the 1986 Apology
- expressed deep regret and sorrow for our Residential School involvement
- called on the church to find ways to express our repentance to First Nations of Canada.
It had been determined by the Sessional Committee that the word ‘apology’ was theologically inadequate and they moved to the word repentance. Some were deeply disappointed that there was no Apology and others felt relief that at least the Council went as far as it did. However for Aboriginal communities across the country, it was not enough. The word that was needed was Apology.
Why no Apology from the GC in ’97? Only B.C., of the 13 Conferences had petitioned the Council for an Apology. At that time we were in court being sued for several million dollars and the federal government was laying all the blame on the church for the sexual assaults. There was the need for caution, explained by lawyers, that an Apology would make the church more vulnerable to litigation and could relieve the Federal Government of responsibility. It could result in bankruptcy. There was a lot of fear and concern for all the mission oriented programmes within Canada and overseas that would be in jeopardy.
However, the actions of the 36 General Council did put some things in motion towards the initiation of an educational programme across the church about our role in residential schools. And that Port Alberni congregation persevered by contacting the General Secretary to invite the fall 1998 meeting of the General Council Executive be held in Port Alberni. While it was not financially feasible to have the 90 members and staff go to Alberni, it was decided to send a delegation of GCE members from across the country to meet with members of the St. Andrew’s congregation and Ron Hamilton of the Nuu-Chah-Nulth Tribal Council spoke.
I remember when those GCE delegates came back to the fall meeting of the Executive saying we must apologize. These were the same people who had declined to move in that direction at GC 36 but having visited Port Alberni, having met with Kathy’s congregation, having heard the stories of survivors, their hearts and minds had changed. We were still in the courts hoping the judge would find the federal government at least as responsible as the church. In the meantime we were able to reach an out of court settlement with 20 of the 28 complainants on a 50/50 basis with the federal government which the courts later determined to be 25/75 % with the government bearing the larger portion. By this time there were thousands of claims against the four churches and the court costs alone would have bankrupted all the churches and the Catholic orders who had run the schools.
Where does it stand now? Finally the four churches reached a Settlement Agreement with the Federal Government and after a lump sum payment of several million dollars each, the Government assumed responsibility for all further claims even though it was the year 2008 before the Federal Government issued their Apology.
An Alternate Dispute Resolution system was put in place for complainants of physical and sexual abuse and continues today where complainants appear before an adjudicator for a hearing and the Adjudicator makes the decision about the validity of the claim and decides on the amount of settlement the person will receive. If the complainant attended a United Church run school they are asked if they would like to have a church representative present to hear their testimony.
Lorraine Powell and I are two of 10 B.C. Conference people who make ourselves available to attend these hearings when invited to do so. We do not speak except at the end of the hearing when we are given opportunity to offer an Apology. It is painful to listen and at the same time a privilege to be there. It is sacred space. It will be another two years at least before all claimants from across the country have their hearings.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission will come to BC in September. In addition to the major event in Vancouver, there will be Hearings held around the province. Your congregations will be notified of the dates and places and we are hoping many of you will be there as a sign of our desire to hear the truth and to move towards healing and reconciliation.
Marion Best, Former Moderator United Church of Canada 1994-1997