In the words of our Holy Scripture from Isaiah today:
Lift up your eyes on high and see:
Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them,
calling them all by name; because he is great in strength,
mighty in power,
not one is missing
Not one is missing. Proper burial is supposed to be a Christian work of mercy. The horrific genocide of Indian Residential school has come to light, shining upon our painful hypocrisy and violence. Bishop Andrew Asbil said in his recent pastoral letter that we are shocked- but not surprised. We are not surprised because of the courage of Survivors to tell the truth. They spoke out and took the state and church to court because we were still in denial and active cover up denial, though it may seem passive- is by no means a neutral force. Denial of genocide strengthens and sanctions continued violence.
Why didn’t everything in the Nation stop for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission? Why didn’t everything stop when survivors spoke out? Why was the burden of truth on Survivors? Why is the burden still carried by Indigenous communities to fundraise, research and investigate where their missing ones bodies are at schools we created? Survivors spoke out, despite the entire country being washed in denial, ongoing violence, and continued appropriation of Indigenous land. We are shocked today but not surprised because of the courage of Survivors.
The Truth and Reconciliation report accounted sickening stories of how thousands of children were tortured and killed by Christian Canadian leaders- so why didn’t we take those stories seriously? Why didn’t we track down our clergy and hold them accountable? Why didn’t we immediately begin searches our school grounds to understand what happened to these little ones and seek to bury them with honour with their home communities and families? Why don’t we practice proper burial as a work of mercy and obligation of our faith? And hold other denominations responsible to tangible, enfleshed remorse and repentance too?
Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission ran from 2008 to 2015 and published testimonies of widespread and systemic physical and sexual abuse, torture and medical experimentation, starvation, forced sterilization, and death. The final report of the TRC released 94 Calls to Action, including calls for churches and governments to release documents related to the death of children and create resources to locate all of the graves of those who never returned home from Residential School. Yet this has not been fully realized and funding for this was cut by Harper.
The Unmarked Burials Working Group of the TRC have only accounted for 4,200 deceased children, their national registry of names of those who died at Residential School only holds a fraction of the names of the missing children.
Part of our sickness of denial- is the myth that Residential Schools were not that bad. Another element of our cultural denial is to say we cannot judge the past on the moral standards of the present. This is genocide denial. The past is not something static- time is living- it flows, everything we have inherited is built on the breath that came before, the past is political as the present is political. How we relate to and understand our pasts impacted our present and certainly our future.
Even back in 1907, Dr Peter Bryce, Canada’s chief medical officer, wrote reports saying that the policies and practices of Indian Residential School were manslaughter, Dr. Bryce’s research in 1907 showed the death rate at residential schools was 8,000 children for every 100,000. His report sat on a shelf, his recommendations not implemented, over a hundred years later we have many good reports, but little implementation. In addition to wilful denial and coverup of atrocities- Over 15 tonnes, over 200,000 documents related to these institutions were intentionally destroyed by the federal government.
Indigenous Nations, families and Survivors have courageously fought against this denial and Canadian cultural amnesia. They have fought for the right to know what happened to their missing children and to organize and fundraise themselves, to investigate unmarked graves at Indian Residential School. The Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc had to independently raise funds to find their children who died at Kamloops Residential School. The Sioux Valley Dakota Nation in Manitoba also had to take the initiative into their United Church of Canada ran Brandon Residential School, which ran from 1895 to 1972 and have discovered 104 graves, they believe there are likely more. Only 78 of these children’s deaths were documented.
Let us take a breath to honour those children and their families and those whos graves have yet to be found- As the Prophet Isaiah said- God is Creator of all- all his handworks are known to him, and not one is missing.
When the TRC labeled what happened to these children, what happened at Indian Residential School as cultural genocide, those of us who had heard the stories of survivors knew that that was a slap in the face. This was not just cultural, this was the work of annihilation to gain control over the land and resources, to gain wealth and power for occupying force. We know these policies and practices continue- that Indigenous people continue to be criminalized, have their families broken up, and their treaties broken. Mass and systemic forced sterilization, torture, rape, land theft, and murder are not cultural genocide. They are genocide. Canada has fulfilled the un definition of genocide many times over.
The only way to come out of denial is to face these facts. And allow them to shape how we see our present. My charge to you today is to be witnesses to truth, to bear testimony, to bear a holy word- to call out the genocide denying myths whenever and wherever you hear them. This is our work as Christians in this time of truth revelation- to confess and bear witness, overturn our power, to grieve and follow the lead of Survivors and inter generational Survivors.
Another myth of denial that we must denounce is that this has all been settled by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. That the churches already paid compensation. That it this is over. That Survivors stories were heard and that they were justly compensated. Let us as Anglicans contemplate our place in Creator’s time and story.
n 1998 the Anglican church met with the government of Canada to begin negotiations related to the legacy of Residential Schools and compensation for Survivors. Indigenous people, including the Anglican council of Indigenous people (ACIP) were not included in those negotiations. ACIP only received redacted briefings and their recommendations not implemented Survivors and Indigenous Anglicans were gravely concerned with how the Anglican Church was proceeding, the negotiations and agreements to atone for Residential School were made only by settler leaders quote “without sufficient input from survivors or other Indigenous persons”.
I am citing a report from 2019 to General Synod by the national reconciliation animator titled “One Step on a Journey.” Instead of courts where the perpetrators were on trial- survivors would be put on trial Survivors had to tell their story before a court and also have paper proof that they attended and were enrolled in residential school. Indigenous Anglicans spoke out against this, saying that this process would cause further trauma and not be accessible to many Survivors. This process was described as quote “torturous and appalling,” Indigenous Anglicans’ feedback on the process for the sharing of Survivors stories and methods of compensation and the 2003 settlement was not included or implemented.
The settlement created between the Anglican Church and government states that Survivors will not be able to bring the Anglican Church to court after the settlement, even for new discoveries previously unknown or presented to the courts- and holds the Anglican Church of Canada to, quote, “vigorously oppose” any further claims around the impact of residential schools and the violation of treaty rights.
The Anglican Council of Indigenous people held a press release right before the settlement was signed, denouncing it. The 2003 settlement was signed by the Primate and is a moment Indigenous people and Indigenous Anglicans felt of betrayal by the Anglican Church of Canada. ACIP continues, doing hard and powerful work bearing witness to the truth, supporting Indigenous clergy and leadership, fighting for self determination, and leading the church with systemic change. This work is ongoing and needs greater investment from the national church. In the settlement for Survivors of residential school, the government capped the amount the church would owe, preventing the Anglican Church of Canada from going bankrupt. If the Church had justly compensated Survivors who testified at the TRC we would have to sell some assets.
The process that the Churches and government established for Survivors to tell their stories was described by a Survivor as an aggressive court hearing. Physical and sexual abuse experienced by Survivors were measured on a number scale- which calculated the amount Survivors were compensated. Many found this process deeply offensive and retaumatizing and chose to not engage. The cut off for applications was 2012, which many people found unfair because by the time they were ready to testify the file had been closed. And as the settlement said- NO further charges could be brought after against the Churches. Many found this timeline cut off totally inaccessible and many Survivors who DID participate still were denied compensation all together. Members of the same family who experienced similar abuse at residential school were given uneven compensation, with some family members denied entirely.
This inequity and inconsistencies caused massive tension in communities and some survivors said created “great pain” on top of pain for families. Intergenerational Survivors were not allowed to apply for compensation for their parents, despite being deeply disenfranchised due to the violence of Residential Schools.
As Anglicans it is important for us to learn more about our role in the ongoing harm of residential schools, and acknowledge that our moments of redress excluded Indigenous peoples and the consultation of ACIP, caused further division and harm in families, and did not adequately compensate many Survivors and excluded intergenerational Survivors many whose parents never lived to see the TRC.
Today I invite you to make a choice and a commitment: To confess that we have committed genocide. To confess we have not loved our neighbour as ourselves, we have not practiced the works of mercy.
Canada created these institutions as part of a policy to remove Indigenous people from governance of their land That same framework of our economy, child welfare, prisons, and healthcare continue to this day. The past is not static- we are part of a living ongoing story. To change the course- it takes all of us, picking up our responsibility to right relations. As Indigenous Nations experience genocide as ongoing, we must begin with the first step of acknowledging this. And stop fighting them. We need to practice decolonizing, to shift from a power over and dominating, extractive relationship with one another and the land, or else the genocide will continue and atrocities against Indigenous Nations will go on.
Indigenous Nations shut down Canada just over a year ago The Secwépemc, faced with the horrific burden of caring for their community in te Kamloops- have also been fighting a pipeline which runs through their sovereign territory. Secwépemc land defenders have had their bones broken by police and been criminalized on their own Nation for peacefully protecting their land. Canada continues to break the law by trampling on Indigenous rights. The very people most impacted by residential schools are the people who continue to be brutalized by the state.
I was privileged recently to be in an interfaith dialogue conversation with a Bosnian Muslim scholar. He shared with me as a survivor of the Bosnian genocide that when a country denies its genocide, covers up gravesites, builds over burial grounds, and minimizes the truth, they will continue the practices, policies, and cultures of white supremacy and hate. He watched his own country minimize and deny the genocide against Muslims- and the New Zealand mosque bombers cited the Bosnia genocide as inspiration in their writings. His teaching was that it is critically important work to face, own, memorialize, and keep witness to the memory and truth that Canada and our church are guilty of genocide.
In this time when the Muslim community is grieving after a hateful white supremacist attack, we must bring our hearts together in grief and the solidarity of witness. We have a problem of white supremacy in Canada, the stories we tell and myths we hold have power. Speaking out against genocide denying myths- confessing the truth, bearing witness to our sins is the first step, is a step we can all take today.
When Indigenous people cry STOP- are we able to listen? When they say no, will you support them? I have sent out to all parishes a resource kit of events and ways you can honour national Indigenous peoples month, and how you can support right relations ministries here and across the land going forward. As Indigenous communities continue to grieve their missing ones, and seek to do the holy work of burial- My charge to you today is to be witnesses to truth, to bear testimony, to bear a holy word- to call out the genocide denying myths whenever and wherever you hear them. This is our work as Christians in this time of truth revelation- to confess and bear witness, overturn our power, to grieve and follow the lead of the families. Let us commit to doing a new thing. Bear witness to the light of truth, for the truth will lead us to freedom, ame