Since 1994, the Presbyterian Church in Canada has been intentional about supporting efforts of confession, truth, and reconciliation with Indigenous people and communities. As a result, Presbyterians Sharing provides funding for nine ministries that operate in and for Indigenous communities in Canada. These nine ministries comprise the National Indigenous Ministry Council.
Each ministry operates under a minister, director, or representative who meets with the Council for mutual care, encouragement, and discussion. Though the relationship between the Presbyterian Church in Canada and Indigenous People is wrought with history and pain, in part as a result of the Residential Schools, the church is committed to the ongoing process of healing and reconciliation. This is one of several efforts to recognize wrongdoing, and prayerfully restore right relationships. The National Indigenous Ministry Council operates to uphold ministries engaging in this important work of sharing the reconciliatory action of Jesus in word and deed.
Ministries of the PCC
Anamiewigummig Fellowship Centre – Kenora, ON
Anamiewigummig Fellowship Centre exists to clothe, help, feed, love, and guide people in urban Kenora, Ontario.
To sum up the fulfillment of this mission, one long-term client said of the Fellowship Centre, “I like the way you guys take care of us.”
The ministry provides an urban “home” for many elders and young people who have endured the realities of the Residential School system or have aged out of the child welfare system. Offering practical care and support with food, clothing, and love, the Centre journeys alongside Indigenous people who have been displaced or ravaged by addiction and mental health issues.
Winnipeg Inner City Missions – Winnipeg, MB
Winnipeg Inner City Missions (WICM) is a place of reconciliation and healing. The ministry provides a safe place to grow and learn for people in Winnipeg’s North End and inner city.
WICM serves Indigenous people who have suffered inter-generational and systemic injustices from Residential Schools and the 60’s Scoop and non-Indigenous people seeking well-being. Through temporary housing, employment services, and children/youth programming, WICM supports healing and reconciliation initiatives.
Our First Steps to Employment program offers transitional housing for adults age 30-50 which provides a safe place while they discover themselves through courses and education or during their job search. We operate 19 suites.
Our After-School and Summer Day Camp for children and youth provide healthy food and safety, as well as fun and physical activity, offering a place of healing for the younger generation.
The Learn and Play program for infants and preschool children helps to break the chains of systemic injustice by supporting parents and preschoolers with stimulating play and developmental activities.
Saskatoon Native Circle Ministry – Saskatoon, SK
Saskatoon Native Circle Ministry (SNCM) provides prayer, crisis counselling, nourishment, clothing and a weekly worship Circle to people on the margins of society.The ministry provides a sense of belonging, care, and inclusion for people of all nations, though the activities uphold Indigenous cultural practices.
Through a mid-week worship Circle and an art program, people from all walks of life experience the love of God and guidance of the Holy Spirit. Some individuals who seek refuge at SNCM face poverty, abuse, alcoholism and life on the streets, and the ministry honours those stories, while sharing the good news of Jesus’ love.
Mistawasis Memorial Presbyterian Church – Mistawasis First Nation, SK
Mistawasis Memorial Presbyterian Church was established at the Mistawasis Nehiyawak First Nation since shortly after the signing of Treaty Six in 1876. With weekly worship services, a girl’s program for adolescents, and a sewing initiative, the church meets the needs of the community in tangible ways. The local culture upholds Indigenous language and familial practices to this day.
Mistawasis Memorial Presbyterian Church seeks to honour these practices. Much of the ministry is based in an ongoing connection with the local Health Centre, which allows them to use their building when the roads are impassable, and coordinate programming based on the needs in the community.
Place of Hope Indigenous Presbyterian Church – Winnipeg, MB
Place of Hope Presbyterian Church offers hope and healing to Indigenous people dealing with multi-generational trauma and abject poverty. Pastoral care and healing initiatives are just a part of what the church does to work alongside individuals scarred by Residential Schools, loss of cultural identity, poverty, homelessness, and lack of education.
The congregation specifically ministers to Indigenous People in the inner city of Winnipeg, Manitoba by providing spiritual and tangible care. Working to improve relationships between Indigenous persons and the church is part of their work of reconciliation within the Presbyterian Church in Canada.
Edmonton Urban Native Ministry – Edmonton, AB
Edmonton Urban Native Ministries (EUNM) operates under the call to “lift up your H.E.A.D.S.” The acronym points to the five pillars of their mission: healing, evangelism, awakening, development, and sending. With this mission in mind, the ministry offers a range of services to First Nation individuals through their drop-in centre, located at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church.
In addition to providing for physical needs with hot meals, a clothing bank, an emergency food bank, bus tickets, and haircuts; EUNM also caters to spiritual needs through morning devotionals, prayer, Bible sharing, and worship services. Additionally, they offer tae kwon do lessons, music lessons, vacation Bible school, and local camp scholarships for First Nation children and youth. Where complex issues of addiction, violence, sexual exploitation, homelessness, and poverty exist, EUNM attempts to meet affected individuals with the love of Jesus.
Nazko & Area Dakelh Outreach– Cariboo Region, BC
The Nazko and Area Dakelh Outreach (NADO) exists as a house church in a remote village at the edge of the Nazko First Nations reserve in the northern part of B.C. Rooted in prayer and biblical teaching, the outreach offers a socially-transforming ministry of presence, walking with people through grief and struggles with addiction in the face of systemic racism.
The house church fellowships and Bible studies in Nazko (Ndazkoh) and Quesnel, as well as a satellite ministry in Kluskus (Lhoosk’uz). Another nearby house church in the non-native ranching community of Punchaw meets regularly for worship, fellowship and teaching.
In addition to a weekly worship service, NADO provides an after-school program for elementary school kids, pastoral care, community presence, and leadership development opportunities for the local Indigenous community.
This incarnational ministry focuses on living life within an Indigenous community, which includes taking part in Indigenous Healing Circles and Elder’s lunches. Each year, NADO hosts an art and music festival in the community. One ongoing aspect of the ministry is raising up local leadership among the Indigenous population to further the good news of Jesus in a culturally-honouring manner.
Hummingbird Ministries – Vancouver, BC
Hummingbird Ministries is an Indigenous healing and reconciliation effort. The ministry has a place of worship (a Holy House), where Indigenous people may encounter Jesus Christ and simultaneously uphold Indigenous Circle practices. The name comes from the Arapaho story of a hummingbird fetching the seed needed for the people to build a Holy House.
Grounded in The Presbyterian Church in Canada Confession of 1994, Hummingbird Ministries upholds the commitment: “To walk with Aboriginal people in journeys of wholeness and healing together as God’s people.” It operates a variety of programs, including a Circle Ministry (which includes a Circle, activity, and a meal). Additionally, art, dance, music, and drama presentations at local churches, schools, and Indigenous events help elevate the dignity of Indigenous people and educate non-Indigenous people about valuable ways to embrace Indigenous culture and take part in reconciliation efforts.
Cedar Tree Ministries (CTM) – Duncan, BC
Cedar Tree Ministries is an outreach ministry for Indigenous People on Vancouver Island. The mission is to bring healing and reconciliation between the church and the First Nations, as well as to worship God.
The ministry includes multiple First Nations worship services on the island, as well as a food bank, Sunday school, prayer meeting, youth group, children’s after-school program, and counselling services for youth and adults dealing with mental health issues and addictions.
Cedar Tree Ministries shares the good news of Jesus in Indigenous communities as an outreach effort. The Malahat, Chemainus, Huu-Ay-Aht, and Pacheedaht First Nations are presently included in this outreach ministry. The Cowichan Tribe currently houses much of the ministry programs within Cedar Tree Ministries.
The Church Speaks
From the Social Action Handbook
The First Nations of Canada should have a constitutional guarantee to the right to self-government and to an adequate land and economic base arising from aboriginal title, aboriginal rights and treaty rights.
Recognized regional and national groupings of native people have a special right to be heard by federal, provincial, territorial and municipal governments and the various courts of the church.
Resource development should not take place on un-surrendered land until either there is a claims agreement in place or terms governing that development are negotiated satisfactorily with the native people concerned.
We acknowledge that the stated policy of the Government of Canada was to assimilate aboriginal peoples into the dominant culture and that the Presbyterian Church in Canada co-operated in this policy. … We confess that, with the encouragement and assistance of the Government of Canada, the Presbyterian Church in Canada agreed to take the children of aboriginal peoples from their own homes and place them in residential schools, [and that] the effect of all this, for aboriginal peoples, was the loss of cultural identity and the loss of a secure sense of self.
For our church, we ask forgiveness from God. We ask, also, for forgiveness from aboriginal peoples.
The Church Acts
The 92nd General Assembly (1966) recommended that all levels of the church “do all within their power to insure that Canada’s Indians are treated without discrimination and urge the appropriate levels of government to take immediate steps to insure that their housing and their education and employment opportunities more closely approximate the conditions obtaining for the people of Canada as a whole.” The 95th General Assembly (1969) took note of the increasing frustration of native people, their lack of a right to vote, or to control their own financial affairs, and their difficulty in getting a hearing for their just demands, and informed the Government of Canada of its support for the “just demands of the Indians of Canada for full participation in the affairs that concern them, and their desires for self-realization within the social and economic structures of Canadian life.”
The relationship between Presbyterians and First Nations goes back over a century to the ministry of James Nesbit. Over the years, Native Ministry has included work on reserves, in residential schools and in urban ministries with native people. Many, reports mentioned the poverty and poor living conditions faced by Native people, but the first explicit commitment to social action appears in the 1960s.
In 1969, the Government of Canada issued a white paper on Indian Affairs, proposing far reaching changes in the Indian Act and the relationship of native Canadians to the federal government. It drew swift and thorough condemnation from native leaders as a recipe for the complete assimilation of native people into the Canadian mainstream. A measure of the cultural gap between native people and the church at the time, is the ESA report to the 96th General Assembly that expressed approval of the policy of the white paper with no mention of native responses. A commissioner’s motion from the floor drew attention to native dissatisfaction with the white paper as embodied in the response of the Indian Association of Alberta’s “red paper”. The white paper and the 1973 legislation based on it galvanized native resistance, and the legislation was withdrawn due to the strength of native opposition to it.
1970: The 96th General Assembly recommended that congregations familiarize themselves with the Government of Canada’s Statement on Indian Policy, and with the “red paper” (a response written by the Indian Association of Alberta). It called on Presbyterians to familiarize themselves with Indian culture, history and contributions to Canadian life, asked the GBM to evaluate its work and recommend improvements in its approach to work with Canadian Indians, and encouraged congregational use of audio-visual materials, conversations with residents of near-by reserves and invitations to Indian leaders to address congregations and groups, as well as an invitation to such a leader to attend the next General Assembly. It also approved a motion from the floor that drew attention to the strong dissatisfaction in Native communities with the white paper and called on the Government of Canada to make arrangements for further consultation, at length and in depth with all interested parties, Indian or otherwise.
1975: The 101st General Assembly mandated giving priority to Native ministries and Native issues for five years as part of the Presbyterian Church in Canada Centennial celebrations. It adopted implementing recommendations of the BWM including that “a first step in this process should be to sensitize the non-native people to the concerns of native people,” and that native congregations be encouraged “to explore ways of Christian worship and ministry that are meaningful to them.” A report from Kenora told of the occupation of a local park by the Ojibwa Warrior Society, and the role played by the Kenora Fellowship Centre in providing space for negotiations to end the conflict.
1976: The 102nd General Assembly approved a statement and recommendations to be sent to the Berger commission, reaffirmed the five-year emphasis on native peoples, mandated the BWM to produce a study paper on the culture, values and spirituality of native peoples, and asked the Committee on Church Worship to study Christian native worship.
1978: The 104th General Assembly adopted a statement on northern development calling on the Government of Canada to assure “an orderly, carefully studied and controlled process” when assurances could be given that “it will not present serious hazards and threats to the delicate northern environment” and only with the full involvement of native peoples including the recognition of their legitimate rights and claims.
1980-84: The 106th General Assembly (1980) granted the request of the BWM that appointments to native ministry be on the same basis as appointments overseas with equivalent terms, orientation, language study, adequate work funds and furlough with accompanying benefits. It also mandated the BWM to “inform members of the church of the current and regional concerns of Canada’s native people.” A motion to teach native spirituality to candidates for ministry was referred to the colleges. The 110th General Assembly (1984) removed a section from the BWM’s “Principles, Policy and Practice” which contained statements denigrating to native people.
The Berger Report
In 1975, the Government of Canada mandated Justice Thomas Berger to conduct an inquiry into northern development that affected native people, in particular, the proposed Mackenzie Valley pipeline. In connection with this inquiry, the churches founded the Inter-Church Project on Northern Development (Project North*) to co-ordinate their research and advocacy work. Justice Berger’s final report recommended a ten year moratorium on northern development to provide time to settle the land claims of native peoples in the north and their involvement in northern development.
*Project North was replaced by the Aboriginal Rights Coalition (ARC) in 1988 and became part of KAIROS in 2001
1987: The 113th General Assembly, in a message to the federal and provincial governments on the proposed Meech Lake Accord, noted its concern that “such issues as aboriginal rights and development prospects of the Yukon and the Northwest Territories had not been specifically addressed.
1990: The BWM informed the 116th General Assembly that it had established a National Committee of Native Peoples charged with the responsibility of “keeping the needs and agendas of the native peoples before the church.” (Note: Currently called the National Native Ministries Committee, which meets semi-annually in Winnipeg.)
The Oka Crisis
The Oka crisis lasted from March to September 1990. It was triggered by a town council decision to build a golf course on land claimed by the nearby Mohawk community of Kahnesetake. When their claim was rejected by the courts, the Mohawk Warriors set up blockades to prevent the town from proceeding with the golf course. In July, a police officer on duty at the blockade was killed. Police presence was increased to 1,000 while Mohawk and other First Nations rallied to assist the people of Kahnesetake. In August 1990, the provincial police were replaced by 1,400 Canadian Army troops. The Mohawk Warriors surrendered peacefully on September 26, 1990. Thirty-four were charged for their actions and acquitted in 1992.
In the wake of the Oka crisis, the Government of Canada established the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples.
1991: The BCL informed the 117th General Assembly that, as instructed by the 115th General Assembly (1989), it had joined the Aboriginal Rights Coalition (ARC) (formerly Project North, now a part of KAIROS) and found its participation in ARC very helpful in formulating a church response to the crisis of 1990. In addition, the 117th General Assembly requested synods, presbyteries and congregations to set up information sessions to listen to native leaders in their region and to support the aboriginal people based on the decisions of previous assemblies. Federal and provincial governments were requested to place a high priority on developing a comprehensive process for a just settlement of outstanding native land claims and governance issues, such process to include the establishment of an Aboriginal Rights Commission. The General Assembly urged that resource development should not take place on unsurrendered land without settling land claims or negotiating acceptable terms. The Government of Canada was requested to resume constitutional talks including representatives of First Nations as full participants and to include on the agenda of the next First Ministers’ Conference a commitment to entrench aboriginal rights in the Canadian constitution. (Note: Specifically: 1) the enforceable right of aboriginal peoples to self-government once clearly defined, 2) an adequate land and economic base arising from aboriginal title, aboriginal rights and treaty rights; and 3) the requirement of consultation with aboriginal peoples on all future constitutional amendments affecting such rights).
1992: The 118th General Assembly endorsed a “Response to the Constitutional Proposals” which included a section on aboriginal rights.14 It also called on the church to commit itself to listen to the issues as they are named and described by aboriginal peoples and to listen to what aboriginal peoples decide is useful and appropriate in response; to support healing processes that arise from aboriginal peoples themselves; and to commit itself to working with aboriginal peoples in calling the Government of Canada to acknowledge that its polices were harmful to aboriginal peoples.
1993-1994: The 120th General Assembly adopted “Our Confession to Aboriginal Peoples” (Note: The name was changed to “The 1994 Confession of The Presbyterian Church in Canada regarding injustices suffered by Canada’s First Nations Peoples” (p. 87) and mandated the LMA to explore ways to bring our confession to aboriginal peoples and further the process of reconciliation. The LMA was also instructed to provide study materials for use in the church to enable synods, presbyteries and congregations to understand better the issues leading to this confession, and to enter into the process of reconciliation. Assembly Council was mandated to “commit resources to a concerted engagement in the healing/reconciliation processes presently in progress.” The moderator was asked to take the opportunity of his visit to Shoal Lake to express publicly to the aboriginal people gathered there the confession adopted by the Assembly. (Note: A public ceremony was held in Winnipeg and the confession presented to the Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.)
1996: The LMA and Assembly Council reported to the 122nd General Assembly on Presbyterian participation in the Spiritual Assembly, and follow-up conversations with the Canadian Council of Churches. Initial steps were taken to set up a healing fund to distribute to First Nations engaged in healing processes related to residential schools. It was agreed with other churches that the Aboriginal Rights Coalition would take the lead on educational activity to assist church members in understanding the issues facing First Nations and in keeping before the government and the churches their respective responsibilities concerning residential schools. (Note: e.g. agriculture, education, employment, housing, recreation, etc.)
1997: The 123rd General Assembly instructed the LMA to re-examine the priorities developed and reported to the 117th General Assembly (1991), especially with respect to Native Ministries.19 PWS&D was encouraged to actively initiate and fund development projects involving native Canadians, with special consideration being given to native Canadians living on reserves that are inaccessible by summer roads.
2003: The 129th General Assembly affirmed its commitment to live the church’s 1994 Confession regarding ministry with aboriginal peoples in Canada.
The Church Reflects
This section includes:
- Excerpts from “Indians of Canada” — BWM report, 1976
- Statement on Northern Development from Motion adopted by the 102nd General Assembly, 1976
- Excerpts from “Aboriginal Rights” — BCL report, 1991
- Excerpts from “Hydro-Electric Mega-Projects” — BCL report, 1992 23
- Excerpts from “Response to the Constitutional Proposals” — BCL report, 1992
- Excerpts from “Reconciliation with Aboriginal Peoples” — LMA report, 1994 16
- The 1994 Confession of The Presbyterian Church in Canada regarding injustices suffered by Canada’s First Nations Peoples
Excerpts from “Indians of Canada” — BWM report, 1976
Over 110 years have passed since the concern of Presbyterians for native people was first rallied by the Reverends John Black and James Nisbet. Since then a steady stream of missionaries has come to the Prairie synods with but one purpose: to preach and live the Good News of Jesus Christ. … “Living the Good News” meant helping to build homes, dispense medical supplies and drugs, offer clothing, books, and finally, through the vision and generosity of the WMS, hospitals, residential schools, as well as nurses, teachers, deaconesses, and ministers. But with all our zeal and good works, we must confess, with other communions, that it has been flavoured with bigotry, paternalism, and seeking to impose our culture, our language, on the people we would serve in Christ’s name. The day of the church’s paternalistic attitude and welfare handouts is finished. If we persist in this, we only depreciate our effectiveness as instruments of God’s grace. … Most native leaders today know that welfare is not the answer to their problems. They request equal opportunity in education, job-seeking and a sympathetic consideration of their land claims.
Statement on Northern Development from Motion adopted by the 102nd General Assembly, 1976
1. Whereas Canadian northern development in the past few years has proceeded without adequate safeguards,
Whereas the rights of the native people of Canada in the north are in danger of being abused due to this development and,
Whereas the 101st General Assembly of The Presbyterian Church in Canada designated the following five years as emphasizing the church’s concern for native people, Therefore, be it resolved that the 102nd General Assembly of The Presbyterian Church in Canada supports the principle of a moratorium regarding development of non-renewable energy resources in the Canadian North until such time as the following priorities have been established and adopted by the Canadian government.
(i) Just settlement of the land claims of the Dene and Inuit People
(ii) Development of native peoples’ programs for economic development in the north
(iii) Adequate safeguards to deal with environmental problems like oil spills, blowouts, damaged terrain, and living creatures
(iv) New programs to regulate domestic consumption and export of energy resources and that this statement be forwarded to the Berger Commission and to the Prime Minister of Canada.
Excerpts from “Aboriginal Rights” — BCL report, 1991
The crisis at Oka and Chateauguay has some painful lessons to teach us about the fragile character of justice, peace and truth in our society. These lessons include the awareness of major cultural differences, the entrenched realities of racism, the recourse to violence, the use of intimidation tactics, the misinformation campaigns, the forced negotiations at gunpoint, and the decision to resort to a military solution. Individual Christians, congregations and denominations need to reflect and act based on their deeply held convictions on injustice and fairness so that redress may be made for past errors and strong voices of faith may speak out sensitively to support the aboriginal peoples of Canada. New approaches to aboriginal rights issues in Canada are required which reflect principles of justice, peace and truth.
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees to all Canadians the full range of fundamental human rights and freedoms. In addition, the Canadian constitution contains specific provisions for the recognition and protection of existing aboriginal and treaty rights. Also, aboriginal peoples are protected by provincial human rights codes.
As aboriginal peoples continue their struggle to decolonize themselves and regain their aboriginal and historic rights, they face numerous challenges. These include: the need for a comprehensive native land claims policy and a just settlement of outstanding land rights issues; the need to reopen and complete constitutional negotiations on aboriginal rights, particularly the right to self-government; the resurgence of major resource development projects on traditional native lands and their environmental consequences; the increase in military operations in aboriginal territories; and, the growing crisis in social services for aboriginal communities.
Excerpts from “Hydro-Electric Mega-Projects” — BCL report, 1992 23
There have been tremendous costs borne by aboriginal peoples in the northern regions of Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec because of hydro-electric mega project development. There is also concern for the Innu Nation of Labrador who could be similarly affected by the proposed large dams on the Churchill River in Nitassinan. What has happened can be described as falling dominos: the construction of hydro mega projects has disturbed, even destroyed, sections of land and waterways, which has disturbed the traditional way of life for aboriginal peoples whose economy is tied to the waterways. This in turn has contributed to increasing sociological problems of violence and substance abuse in the effected communities. For aboriginal peoples there have not been benefits such as cheap electric power or increased opportunity for employment from the hydro mega project.
The presence of hydro-electric mega projects on aboriginal lands represents an injustice within Canadian society. It is cruel and unjust to disturb a way of life by the destruction of trapping lands, the contamination of fish with mercury released from decomposing trees, and the flooding of native burial grounds. What is most disturbing is that the phenomenon of hydro mega projects is typical of the injustice done to Canada’s aboriginal peoples because there is often no consultation and hence no participation with them in the planning of these projects. The valid and legitimate concerns of aboriginal peoples are ignored when the power corporations plan to develop these mega projects on lands which native peoples inhabit, land which they believe is theirs to care for and preserve. In particular, Hydro Quebec’s James Bay II project violates the James Bay and Northern Quebec agreement signed in 1975, which requires the involvement and approval of Cree and Inuit people in the assessment process for any further hydro-electric projects in their region. It is clear that aboriginal people have been treated as second-class citizens. While these projects are promoted as being “for the common good,” a portion of the population is generally excluded.
The Christian faith calls one to respect and consider those who are adversely affected when growth occurs for growth’s sake, and when humans manipulate the environment and each other by an excessive emphasis on bigness and control. Christians are called to challenge attitudes, practices and structures which do not promote the well-being and the preservation of God’s created order. Especially we are called to challenge and protest against the decision-making processes behind the planning and development of hydro mega projects which do not take seriously enough the concerns of all people. In particular, injustice has been done to Canada’s aboriginal peoples in not respecting their way of life, and in not listening to their stories. In following the example of our aboriginal sisters and brothers let us, the community of faith known as the church, acknowledge and proclaim that the relationship between the land and the people is based on respect and gratitude not domination. Let us aim to protect God’s creation as a way of meeting the Creator’s will. One way the church can support Canada’s aboriginal peoples is by supporting responsible development of hydraulic resources by those native groups who have themselves expressed their willingness to do so in a way that destroys neither the land nor their way of life.
Excerpts from “Response to the Constitutional Proposals” – BCL report, 1992
(see also French-English Relations; Ecology, Energy and Environment; and Social and Economic Issues for more excerpts from this document.)
The Inherent Right for Aboriginal Self-Government
Aboriginal peoples in Canada governed themselves long before the arrival of Europeans. This right to self-government is an inherent right that pre-dates the Canadian Confederation and should be recognized in the constitution. It is not a legal right delegated to aboriginal peoples by federal and provincial authorities that could be extinguished by political decision. This implies, therefore, that aboriginal peoples have an inherent right to self-government with an adequate land and economic base arising from aboriginal title. Their communities should participate in all constitutional discussions leading to the development of appropriate forms of self-government. Political negotiations and not the decisions of the courts should determine forms of self-government.
Excerpts from “Reconciliation with Aboriginal Peoples” — LMA report, 1994, 16
Efforts to assimilate aboriginal peoples have had far reaching effects. While these are still being fully documented, it is recognized by aboriginal peoples, the federal government and churches that these efforts contributed, in ways that are still being felt, to the dysfunction of family units, lack of skills for child rearing, loss of a sense of community, cycles of physical and emotional abuse, and a relationship of dependency on outside agencies. As more and more aboriginal communities begin to tell their stories and to reflect on the impact of residential schools, it is becoming clearer that the devastating impacts, impacts that are real in spite of the intentions of those who gave many years in Christian service and devotion, will take years to overcome.
Residential schooling should be thought of more as a nuclear explosion, with the blast damaging some more directly than others, but with fallout and nuclear winter affecting everyone. A disease metaphor (i.e., you either have it or you don’t, and those who do may have it more or less intensely) fails to capture the complexity of what has happened in First Nations communities, while at the same time denying or demeaning the experience of many who have suffered.
For aboriginal peoples this history represents a betrayal of trust by governments and churches. Aboriginal peoples have indicated that they want their stories to be heard and acknowledged by governments and churches. Both churches and the federal government have been called by several national consultations to respond to the allegations of abuse and to work towards healing and reconciliation. The report of the Canadian Panel on Violence against Women is but one example. There is both a moral and a legal obligation for the Canadian government and the churches of Canada, who jointly participated in the victimization of aboriginal children, to share equally the responsibility of providing financial assistance to help heal residential school victims and their families and of compensating for their pain and suffering all living victims of abuse committed by staff at the schools.
The 1994 Confession of The Presbyterian Church in Canada regarding injustices suffered by Canada’s First Nations Peoples
The Holy Spirit, speaking in and through scripture, calls The Presbyterian Church in Canada to confession. This confession is our response to the word of God. We understand our mission and ministry in new ways, in part because of the testimony of aboriginal peoples.
We, the 120th General Assembly of The Presbyterian Church in Canada, seeking the guidance of the Spirit of God, and aware of our own sin and shortcomings, are called to speak to the church we love. We do this out of new understandings of our past, not out of any sense of being superior to those who have gone before us, nor out of any sense that we would have done things differently in the same context. It is with deep humility and in great sorrow that we come before God and our aboriginal brothers and sisters with our confession.
We acknowledge that the stated policy of the Government of Canada was to assimilate aboriginal peoples to the dominant culture, and that The Presbyterian Church in Canada co-operated in this policy. We acknowledge that the roots of the harm we have done are found in the attitudes and values of western European colonialism, and the assumption that what was not yet moulded in our image was to be discovered and exploited. As part of that policy we, with other churches, encouraged the government to ban some important spiritual practices through which aboriginal peoples experienced the presence of the creator God. For the church’s complicity in this policy we ask forgiveness.
We recognize that there were many members of The Presbyterian Church in Canada who, in good faith, gave unstintingly of themselves in love and compassion for their aboriginal brothers and sisters. We acknowledge their devotion and commend them for their work. We recognize that there were some who, with prophetic insight, were aware of the damage that was being done and protested, but their efforts were thwarted. We acknowledge their insight. For the times we did not support them adequately nor hear their cries for justice, we ask forgiveness.
We confess that The Presbyterian Church in Canada presumed to know better than aboriginal peoples what was needed for life. The church said of our aboriginal brothers and sisters, “If they could be like us, if they could think like us, talk like us, worship like us, sing like us, work like us, they would know God as we know God and therefore would have life abundant.” In our cultural arrogance we have been blind to the ways in which our own understanding of the Gospel has been culturally conditioned, and because of our insensitivity to aboriginal cultures, we have demanded more of aboriginal peoples than the gospel requires, and have thus misrepresented Jesus Christ who loves all peoples with compassionate, suffering love that all may come to God through him. For the church’s presumption we ask forgiveness.
We confess that, with the encouragement and assistance of the Government of Canada, The Presbyterian Church in Canada agreed to take the children of aboriginal peoples from their own homes and place them in residential schools. In these schools, children were deprived of their traditional ways, which were replaced with Euro-Canadian customs that were helpful in the process of assimilation. To carry out this process, The Presbyterian Church in Canada used disciplinary practices which were foreign to aboriginal peoples, and open to exploitation in physical and psychological punishment beyond any Christian maxim of care and discipline. In a setting of obedience and acquiescence there was opportunity for sexual abuse, and some were so abused. The effect of all this, for aboriginal peoples, was the loss of cultural identity and the loss of a secure sense of self. For the church’s insensitivity we ask forgiveness.
We regret that there are those whose lives have been deeply scarred by the effects of the mission and ministry of The Presbyterian Church in Canada. For our church we ask forgiveness of God. It is our prayer that God, who is merciful, will guide us in compassionate ways towards helping them to heal.
We ask, also, for forgiveness from aboriginal peoples. What we have heard we acknowledge. It is our hope that those whom we have wronged with a hurt too deep for telling will accept what we have to say. With God’s guidance our church will seek opportunities to walk with aboriginal peoples to find healing and wholeness together as God’s people.