St Mary's First Nation

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"We must start over. Whatever the price, the Anglican Church must bend toward justice for native Canadians," says Primate Michael Peers
Monday, September 25, 2000

 

In the summer of 1993, in Minaki, Ontario, I was privileged to share in a national gathering of aboriginal Anglicans. It was one of the most profound and most difficult undertakings I have experienced. After two days of listening to stories of aboriginal pain that rose out of life in the residential schools, I acknowledged and confessed our failure in the schools. And, with the mandate of our national executive council, I made an apology on behalf of the Anglican Church of Canada to those whose lives had been wounded.

There are voices -- both outside and within our church -- that say it was a mistake to have apologized. Respectfully, I disagree. Some contend the apology has landed us in deeper trouble in the courts. That may or may not be true. But the apology is about accepting responsibility, not avoiding it.

Some voices speak out of concern for former teachers and staff of the schools -- rightly troubled that all who worked in the schools are tarred with the same brush as the few who were predators. I share their disquiet because many of those who worked in the schools were among our very best -- those most willing to stand with aboriginal people. I do not regret the actions of good and generous persons. I deeply regret our participation in a bad system.

Other voices say the apology was an act of "political correctness" -- a phrase regularly used to belittle an idea without any serious engagement. To speak one's sorrow, to speak of one's shame for wrongs committed to aboriginal peoples -- both individuals and communities -- is about speaking the truth. The truth does set us free, and refusal to speak it would make impossible the journey of healing that we seek to continue.  One does not build a future on nothing. One builds a future on the past -- even on a past filled with painful memories. Archbishop Rowan Williams, the Primate of Wales, once spoke of the people of Israel at the time of their return from exile in Babylon. They didn't try to forget the destruction of their land or city. Rather they returned, he said, "to the ruins of the past, to the devastated and depopulated land of Israel and built there, with the help of God, a city which is new but which still stood on the same earth of the old." In Canada, we are revisiting the social policy of our past because in it was the soil of so much of today's pain and suffering. But it can also become the soil -- the earth -- of a new relationship. Exposing and admitting wounds makes healing possible.  Our first goal as a national church is to work toward healing and reconciliation. That will mean nothing unless doing justice is at the centre. There are over 1,600 lawsuits affecting our church, and the Government of Canada faces more than 7,000. What lies behind these claims is the question of access to justice. Where does one go when one meets intransigence, resistance and a refusal to be fair? One goes to the courts. It is interesting that before the release, in 1996, of the findings and recommendations of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, there were relatively few lawsuits. I believe it was government inaction in regard to those recommendations that has led to the flood of lawsuits. If your rights and claims are ignored, then you either curl up and die, or you fight. So we see fights in the courts, we see struggles like the one in Burnt Church. And we will see more. In a phrase of the poet Christopher Fry, "affairs are now soul-size."

I believe the relationship between aboriginal and non-aboriginal peoples of Canada could be the dominant issue of the next decade. It is an affair that is soul-size for Canada, and its outcome will tell us what kind of society we choose to be. Globe columnist Jeffrey Simpson recently called attention to the "dangerously widening divide" between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians. We need to confront anything within the soul of our nation that indicates weariness with doing justice, or reveals a potential for prejudice or even racism.

Talk of healing without justice is devoid of honour, a dodging of responsibility. For over 30 years, since ending our association with the residential schools in 1969, we have known that our mission is to accompany indigenous peoples in their struggle for justice. That is why, for instance, I join others under the Millennium Jubilee banner to petition Ottawa about recognizing aboriginal land claims.  I speak of the government, but I must also speak of the Church. This affair is soul-size for us, too. Our starting point is the Cross. It is not just something we bear; it is something we choose for ourselves. Jesus says, "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all."

The passage is about taking ourselves out of games of domination and control. Our journey (like those of the disciples) is to get out from being over and on top, in order to stand beside. That is the harder journey for us. It is the journey of the Cross. And the journey of the Cross is the journey toward justice.

A month ago, I participated in the Sacred Circle, the fourth such gathering of aboriginal Anglicans in Canada. Words were spoken there that I cherish. The speaker was a Cree leader, Ethel Ahenakew. She said to me, and through me to you: "You are the instrument God has chosen to orchestrate the Church to start over, after admitting the wrongs your ancestors have committed. We can now start building bridges so that white and aboriginal people can come together and become strong as a church, a church where you have laid a strong foundation with your apology."  Together, we are instruments. Together, we build bridges. Together, we are called into a discipleship that is rooted in the way of the Cross.  I do not know where God will take us as we walk this path. I do not know if we will survive in our present form as a national church. I do not know if those dioceses that are in financial difficulty will survive. I do not know if church buildings in those dioceses will have to be sold.

In the lines of local poet Janet Read:  "This is a voyage without luggage, passports without territorial illusions buoys clang channel's end before rock, reef, wreck."

I do know we need to work hard to be sure of each step. But, even more, we need faith to take steps when we aren't sure at all. Desmond Tutu, in the darkest days of apartheid, could not predict where the path of discipleship would lead.

I also know, as the late Robert Runcie, former Archbishop of Canterbury, was fond of saying, the Church is "in for the long haul." And we are. The journey described in the gospel is one in which Jesus committed himself to move into the darkness of "rock, reef and wreck." This is the long haul.  American biblical scholar, Walter Wink writes: "Jesus at his crucifixion neither fights the darkness nor flees under cover of it, but goes with it, goes into it. He enters the darkness freely, voluntarily. The darkness is not dispelled or illuminated. It remains vast, untamed, void. But he somehow encompasses it. It becomes the darkness of God. It is now possible to enter any darkness and trust God to wrest from it meaning, coherence, resurrection. The universe bends towards justice."

The universe bends toward justice. Not because societies seek it, because often they subvert it. Not because the Church longs for it, because sometimes we don't. The universe bends toward justice because it is God's universe, and God has made it possible for justice to rise out of depths, even the depths of injustice.

My prayer is that the Spirit of God will give us courage and hope to carry on, not to weary of our Lord's call to be converted, not to weary of doing justice. I will strive -- we will strive -- for justice and peace among all people. We will, with God's help.

Archbishop Michael Peers is Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada. This article is adapted from a sermon delivered September 24, 2000 at St. James Cathedral in Toronto.

Copyright 2000 - The Globe and Mail

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