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The Anglican Church of Canada's continuing struggle with its colonial history

For more than a decade, the Anglican Church of Canada has been struggling with the legacy of its own participation in the attempt by European colonisers to assimilate the Indigenous Peoples of Canada.  Early Christian missionaries in Canada established schools for Indigenous children, but by the mid nineteenth century, these schools were seen by the government as the main vehicle to implement the government’s policy of assimilation.  Indigenous children were forcibly placed in residential schools, were forbidden to speak their own languages, and were taught the cultural practices and values of the colonisers.  The Anglican, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic and United churches continued their involvement with the residential schools, acting as agents, sometimes willingly and sometimes not, of the government’s assimilation policy.  With hindsight, this mission endeavour is viewed as an example of the cultural arrogance of the day and of the confusion of gospel and culture.  The Europeans believed their cultures to be superior to the cultures of the First Peoples of North America.  In addition, they failed to recognise the ethnocentricity of their own particular interpretations of the Christian gospel.

In the late 1960’s, the churches withdrew from the government’s assimilation project and began to advocate on behalf of Indigenous Peoples, who by this time were demanding the recognition of their inherent rights and the return of their traditional lands.  In the 1990’s, the churches began seeking ways to address the damages caused by assimilation policies and by the physical and sexual abuse suffered by many students during their boarding school years.  The Anglican Church of Canada established a residential schools Healing Fund in 1991 to assist community groups to implement programs of healing.  In addition, in 1993 Archbishop Michael Peers made a formal apology to Indigenous Anglicans for the church’s participation in the running of the residential schools.  

However, despite apologies, programme funding and advocacy support from the churches, overall in Canadian society atonement was muted and financial compensation to individuals was not forthcoming from government or churches.  In 1996, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples released its lengthy report containing over 600 recommendations for addressing the many injustices suffered by Aboriginal Peoples.  Government response to this report was delayed for over a year and was then widely criticised, as was a less-than-adequate formal apology issued by the Minister of Indian Affairs in 1998.  Former students of the residential schools, disheartened by these responses and encouraged by their lawyers, began to bring lawsuits against the Government of Canada and the four churches, which had run the residential schools.  These lawsuits multiplied rapidly so that by the end of 2001, the Anglican Church of Canada faced impending bankruptcy, and was struggling to reach an agreement with the government which would relieve it of some of the costs of litigation.  Other churches were similarly affected, lacking the “deep pockets” of the government, which was able to use public tax funds to meet these costs.

The Anglican Church of Canada stated its goals in this process as follows:
To continue to work at its ministry of healing and reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples;
To continue to survive as an institution in order to continue its ministry.
To seek an accommodation with the federal government in order to be able to accomplish its first and second goals.

To this end, the church spent over a year in negotiations with the Government of Canada, which eventually resulted in an agreement signed formally in March of 2003.  The main elements of the agreement are as follows:
The Church will contribute 30% of the settlements for all validated claims of sexual and physical abuse, up to a maximum Church contribution of $25 million, with the Federal Government covering all additional settlement costs. 
All Anglican dioceses will be invited to contribute to the payment of compensation.
The Anglican Church will continue its work dedicated to the healing of individuals and reconciliation with all parties.

Each of the Anglican dioceses in Canada ratified this agreement and accepted responsibility for contributing a percentage of the $25 million over the following 5 years.  Despite the significant financial burden that this presented to many of the dioceses, all saw themselves as members of the church family and saw this as one way to begin to atone for the past and move forward towards eventual reconciliation.  Their willingness to accept responsibility was at least in part a result of 30 years of effort by a relatively small number of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Anglicans to raise awareness of Canada’s colonial history and to address deep-seated racist attitudes.

However, in the terms of the agreement, the government has insisted that victims be compensated only for physical and sexual abuse.  The Anglican Church has agreed to abide by this requirement, while at the same time supporting the government’s promise of funding for programmes of recovery of language and culture.  Many Aboriginal people are angry, insisting that the greater danger to their continued existence and identity is the loss of their distinctive languages and cultures, for which they deserve compensation.  Thus they feel betrayed, and have accused the church of placing its own institutional existence ahead of its stated ministry of healing and reconciliation.  Furthermore, despite the government’s announcement of its intention to fund programs of language and culture recovery, few details of these programs have been provided thus far, and so this promise has been dismissed as an insufficient response or worse, as a disguised attempt to continue the project of full assimilation.  Through its willingness to sign the agreement, the Anglican Church is viewed as once again complicit in the assimilation project, particularly due to the fact that the agreement was negotiated under conditions of strict confidentiality which prohibited adequate consultation and information sharing with the church’s Indigenous Council.  Within the church, relations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Anglicans are severely strained, with a feeling that much of the progress of the past decade towards right relationships has been lost.  Some have gone so far as to say that the signing of the agreement has negated the Primate’s apology.

This story continues to unfold, and those of us on the journey, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, are now challenged to continue to seek ways of establishing new relationships of trust and love.  We must remind ourselves that our calling is to be people of hope, not to give in to cynicism, anger or despair.  The Spirit will guide us if we do not harden our hearts.  Reconciliation is our vocation since Christ came to show us the way to be reconciled with God and with each other.  We continue to make mistakes and our steps falter, but we cannot turn away or give up.  Our only choice is to go forward, in trust and hope.  The most recent sign of hope has been the establishment of a special Indigenous Commission charged with the task of proposing how Indigenous Anglicans can achieve the highest possible level of self-determination within the Anglican family in Canada.  This will undoubtedly mean changes to the canons and structures of the church.  The Commission continues its work, with a commitment to bring preliminary proposals to the next national gathering of Indigenous Anglicans in August, 2005, with a further hope that a final proposal will be ready in time for the General Synod of 2007.  We sincerely believe that the Spirit will be with us and guide us all in these next steps of our common journey.

Communion in Mission 2006
Dr Ellie Johnson
January 2005