At every Chapel service we pray “that a spirit of respect and reconciliation may grow among all nations and peoples.” That is very much our prayer for the Indigenous peoples of Canada and for all of us not just today but for the foreseeable future. Here is the Canadian folk singer Bruce Cockburn singing the first verse of Jesous Ahattonia
, Canada’s first and oldest Christmas song.
The words which he is singing were originally written in the Huron/Wendat language by the French Jesuit missionary and martyr, Fr. Jean de Brébeuf, probably in 1642. He was a linguist who took the time and care to learn the language of the Wendat people and to appreciate their thought and culture in interaction with Christian ideas and themes.
We know and use this hymn at King’s-Edgehill in a later English translation (by J. Edgar Middleton, 1926). In singing it in the Wendat language, Cockburn builds upon the work of Brébeuf who, like many early and largely French missionaries, began the project of providing alphabets and thus a written form for the various First Nations’ peoples, something which has continued even into more recent times with the Inuit. This shows a very different kind of relationship between cultures and languages than what took place in the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries with the Indian Act (1876-present) which makes the Native peoples “wards of the state,” and, particularly, with the notorious residential schools programme (1876-1996). Such things reveal a much more aggressive and destructive form of imperial colonialism derived from Britain and America in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Indian Act and the residential schools programme were intended to assimilate the Native peoples into Canadian life but entirely and often brutally at the expense of the cultures and languages of the Native peoples themselves. Assimilation was the buzz word of the times but in the view of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission it was “cultural genocide,” a policy undertaken “to kill the Indian in the child” (TRC Report, 2015).
The residential schools were “the most aggressive and destructive of all Indian Act policies” (Bob Joseph, 21 Things You May Not Know about the Indian Act, 2018, p. 52
)). It was a government programme managed by the churches – Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, subsequently the United Church, and Presbyterian – and a government wanting to be freed from financial responsibility towards the Native peoples. It was a sad and shameful time in our Canadian history that reveals a betrayal of care by those who were entrusted with the care of over 150,000 children, more than 6,000 of whom either died or disappeared. There were as well incidents of sexual and physical abuse. The numbers of the missing children are imprecise because neither the government nor the churches kept records, hence the heart-rending spectacle of the discovery of unmarked graves this past spring and summer. It is as if they didn’t matter, didn’t exist.
The Indian Act programme of assimilation was part of the so-called “progressive” thinking of the late nineteenth century in America and Canada along with eugenics, racial theories about immigration, and discriminatory practices with respect to social services.
The schools were chronically underfunded. “The buildings were drafty and unsanitary and food for the children was insufficient and often rotten … the schools were also breeding grounds for diseases such as tuberculosis and influenza,” (Bob Joseph, 21 Things, p. 58). Most of the children died from tuberculosis. The problem, though known, highlighted for instance by Dr. Peter Bryce who called it in 1922, “a national crime,” was largely overlooked and denied. All to our shame.
Chief Robert Joseph, an outstanding native leader, provides a moving portrayal of the sufferings endured by many Indigenous students who were forcibly taken from their families and communities and placed in residential schools far away from their homes. Click here to view.
We can only confess our own sins, not the sins of others, but that does not mean ignoring the mistakes and wrongs of the past and their legacy in the present. It also means a commitment to the reconciliation and the recognition of the Indigenous peoples of Canada as full and integral members of Canada.
Reconciliation is not an Indigenous problem; it is a Canadian problem which can no longer be ignored but requires commitment to the difficult but essential process of reconciliation. In some ways, it is about dignity and respect towards the Native peoples of Canada.
Has anything been done? In 2005, a $1.9 billion compensation package was announced for former residential school students; in 2007, the largest class action settlement in Canada, the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, was implemented. All of this built upon a growing awareness of the appalling sufferings of the Native peoples in the schools that began to come to the fore in the 1990s and which led to the creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2007. Apologies were made by the United Church in 1986, the Anglican Church in 1993, and the Presbyterian Church in 1994. In 2009, Phil Fontaine, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations met with Pope Benedict XVI who expressed sorrow for the abuse and deplorable treatment of Indigenous students, and on September 24, 2021, the Conference of Canadian Bishops of the Roman Catholic Church also offered an “unequivocal apology” for the wrongs and abuses done to those in their charge, and committing as of September 28, 2021, $30 million towards reconciliation. Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized on behalf of Canada in 2008; Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in 2017 extended a further apology to Indigenous peoples in Labrador and Newfoundland who had not been included in the previous federal apology.
More needs to be done, certainly. The task of reconciliation remains before us and is, I think, quite movingly stated, again by Chief Robert Joseph, in words which touch upon the ideals and life of our School. It is his words which we need to hear. Click here to view
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, Head of English and ToK Teacher
September 29, 2021