The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) recently held hearings in Halifax. It was the third of seven stops across the country between last year and 2015. Since the only residential school in the province was the Roman Catholic administered school at Schubenacadie, our Roman brothers and sisters, bore the brunt of the anger. I know the rest of us will have our turn in other venues. That's a good thing. It was fascinating to see the range of responses from Roman Catholics I know - and some who made themselves known to me! They spread from horror and denial ("it could never have been like that"), through professed ignorance, to frustration ("What am I supposed to do? Or "I wasn't there.")
None of that is new to me. I've been through the range myself. My first exposure to the Indian Residential School issue really came when, as a newly minted member of the United Church's General Council Executive, we were called into a closed door meeting to decide whether, having been sued for our involvement in the schools, we would counter-sue the federal government. For years, First Nations groups had been stonewalled in their attempts to have governments meaningfully address this oozing sore in our national history. Suing the churches, and having us counter sue the government, seemed the only tactic that would bring the feds to the table. Not that the churches don't have much to answer for, but the feds have the deep monetary pockets out of which meaningful responses could be funded. Further, the Indian residential Schools were a national government policy, undertaken on behalf of all Canadians.
Since those difficult days in 1998 I've had the difficult privilege of sitting in a few sharing circles. I've heard the stories, a mixture of painfully common repeated patterns of abuse sharpened and intensified by each survivor's particular horrors. I've also been on the receiving end of a certain amount of very angry denial from church folks who don't want to (or can't bring themselves to) acknowledge the truth of what is being said. We are often hampered by the individualism of middle class guilt which does not know how to respond to larger systemic injustices.
I've been wondering what I would say in such a sharing circle. How could I make my "I'm sorry" have life?
I'm sorry - I had a good education, I majored in history and I've taught history and I didn't know. Not until those lawsuits began. My education failed me and I didn't look deep enough. I knew about the Japanese-Canadian internments in the Second World War and about how my Protestant ancestors tried to "convert" Ukrainian Catholic immigrants to the prairies. I had some good teachers and my education was not entirely Euro-Centric. But it totally overlooked something that was going on, even as I was in high school. I hope the TRC can push to include this crucial piece of history as part of the required curriculum across the country.
I'm sorry - and I'm moved. I have two grown daughters who are pretty close to the centre of my universe. I simply cannot imagine what it would be like to have them torn from me, to be unable to communicate in our own language and share our customs. I'm in awe at the number of survivors who are willing to sit down with the descendants of their oppressors and speak of a different future. I'm not sure I could.
I'm sorry for our pride and I'm worried that it still operates. How did we get from the gospel of Jesus Christ to the residential schools? Where are the values of God's Kingdom of shalom reflected in that system? Only through the lens of our pride and our conviction that we (whoever the dormant "we" are) know what is best for others. And I'm worried that we may be doing the same thing to some other group and to individual lives, right now.
I'm sorry for not understanding. In 1986 then moderator Bob Smith offered the United Church's first apology to First Nations for our failures in our interactions at so many levels. (http://www.united-church.ca/beliefs/policies/1986/a651). The elders received that apology graciously but did not accept it (http://www.united-church.ca/aboriginal/relationships/response). They wanted to see how we would live it out. Recalling the timeline noted above, I didn't understand then, but I do now. Words are always cheap.
I'm sorry it took so long. As a member of the governing councils I experienced the frustration that leaders in other situations and other denominations have expressed: the sense that we were kept from doing what our hearts and souls told us our faith demanded of us because of the warnings from lawyers and insurance companies. What I heard was, "If you apologize, we'll cut you loose." In a time when whole dioceses of other traditions were facing bankruptcy to pay lawsuit settlements, our concern for the financial well-being of the church trumped what we wanted to do. Fear won out. It took a lot of courage and a lot of struggling to get to the point of apologizing for our part in the residential schools (http://www.united-church.ca/beliefs/policies/1998/a623). Too long.
I'm sorry. The truth is that reconciliation is a very long journey that will change all of us.
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