The Anglican Church of Canada must move forward with the intent of always working to reckon with its residential-school past, an Indigenous leader in the church said.
The Most Rev. Mark MacDonald is the the National Indigenous Anglican Archbishop, and has been working within the church to reform its approach.
“I am working to see that the Anglican Church decolonizes and that a self-determining Indigenous expression of the Anglican faith” develops, MacDonald said.
This past summer, hundreds of unmarked graves were found on the sites of former residential schools, spurring an outpouring of grief and outrage from Indigenous people and Canadians. While the schools where the discoveries were made, Kamloops Indian Residential School in Kamloops B.C. and Marieval Indian Residential School near Regina, were both run by the Catholic Church, the Anglican Church operated about three dozen residential schools from 1820 to 1969.
“I believe that there is an absolute difference between what the colonial churches, like the Anglican Church, have done to Indigenous Peoples and their essential and foundational teachings,” MacDonald said.
The head of the Anglican Church of Canada, Archbishop Linda Nicholls, said the discovery of these graves was “heartwrenching and profound” for families and local communities and that the acts of the ACoC in abusing and burying these children was “tragic and unacceptable.”
MacDonald said the Anglican Church has been a mixed bag of good and evil on Turtle Island, also known as North America. He made the distinction between the church as an entity and the faith it is meant to uphold.
“The institutional aspect of the Anglican Church has lost its dignity and quite a bit more,” he said. “The faith it carries has not lost its dignity. What the church has done is what has been called a desecration of the Name of God, meaning that it has caused people to lose their connection with healing faith.”
MacDonald holds a master’s degree in divinity, has completed numerous published works, has served as a religious leader in numerous settings in both Canada and the United States. He was made the National Indigenous Anglican Bishop in 2007, and became a National Indigenous Anglican Archbishop since 2019.
The history of residential schools in Canada
Although there were residential schools in some form in Canada as early as the 1600s, when people talk of residential schools, they are usually referring to the school system run by the Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, United, and Methodist churches from 1883 to 1996.
Malnutrition, neglect and sexual, physical and emotional abuse of students were common at residential schools. More than 4,000 children are known to have died at the schools, according to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation. However, according to the Assembly of First Nations’ Plain Talk 6 document, the highest estimates suggest that possibly 50 per cent of the children kept at the schools died as a result.
The child of a survivor, Michael Loft, recounted how students of the schools could be beaten at random. There was little correlation between good versus bad behaviour and physical assault. A student (more so boys, said survivor Alice Littledeer) could have been assaulted for any reason at any time.
It has been generally agreed that we do not say graduates, we say survivors.
It is estimated that more than 150,000 Indigenous children were taken from their families and kept at the schools. Once at the schools, children may have remained for as little as three years but many stayed at the schools for as long as ten years.
Assimilation was a major aspect of the residential schools. One of the early goals of the schools was to destroy Indigenous culture and convert all Indigenous peoples to European ways of being. That is why, Saunders wrote, it was decided to not only school the children but also separate them from their parents and culture.
The Anglican Church’s role in residential schools
Between 1820 and 1969, the Anglican Church operated roughly three dozen residential schools in Canada, with most of those schools becoming dormitories for Indigenous students to attend day schools by the 1960s.
In 1993, Michael Peers, the Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, apologized for the Church’s role in the residential school system.
“I am sorry, more than I can say, that we were part of a system which took you and your children from home and family,” Peers’ apology said in part.
In response to residential schools, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was formed to bring to light what happened in the schools and what the impact of the schools was.
As part of the Residential School Settlement Agreement, the ACoC was obligated to pay $15,687,188 in compensation. In 2016, $12,900,000 had been paid. A portion of that money has supported the Anglican Fund for Healing and Reconciliation, which invests in community based “healing projects” that in particular address “language loss” and “cultural abuse.”
One of the Calls to Action of the TRC included, “48.ii. Respecting Indigenous people’s right to self-determination in spiritual matters, including the right to practise, develop, and teach their own spiritual and religious traditions, customs, and ceremonies, consistent with Article 12:1 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous peoples.”
Anglican priest, Andrea Budgey, said the path forward for the church involved acknowledging, exploring and discussing the church’s history, no matter how uncomfortable that may be.
“We continue what I described … working toward equity and autonomy for Indigenous people within the church, and being transparent about issues connected with the history of the residential schools, with acquisition of land and resources, violation of treaties, and participation in acts of genocide.
“We support Indigenous people on issues of systemic racism and environmental justice. We recognize that while not everyone is guilty in the misdoings of the past, we all share responsibility for moving forward.”
Lee Maracle, an expert on Indigenous history who has had family and relatives that survived residential schools, outlined her own proper direction for the Anglican Church of Canada. It is to “restore language and culture.”
“The removal from their families without consent is an international crime against humanity,” Maracle said.
Maracle noted the aspects that made the schools so brutal, including “destruction of language, culture, cohesion, and nationhood.”
“They were denied the right to speak their language while not actually being taught English,” Maracle said.
As stated in Plain Talk 6, some of the lasting trauma among survivors of the schools and the following generations have resulted in substance abuse, eating disorders, mental illness, lack of self respect, difficulty developing healthy relationships, a sense of having no culture and being lost, and suicide.
It’s a legacy the Anglican Church can never lose sight of, MacDonald said.
“For the rest of its existence, [the church] must visibly live in a way that works to undo the past and positively lives for the opposite. This is what is usually referred to in Christian teaching as repentance.”