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Drummers and singers lead off KAIROS Time for Reconciliation sessions in Ottawa. Photo by Dennis Gruending

Truth, reconciliation and Canadian churches

Despite having been a part of the 130-year story of residential schools, churches have a history of protecting and promoting Indigenous rights. That's something to build on after the TRC's findings.

By Dennis Gruending

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) has released a summary of its final report concerning the history and legacy of Indian residential schools, which were organized — and largely financed — by the government but operated by Canadian churches. It documents what the TRC heard from 6,700 survivors and witnesses over six years, and provides 49 recommendations that challenge Canadians to walk in solidarity with Indigenous peoples. Most noticeably, the TRC summary report describes what happened in the schools as “cultural genocide," a term recently used by both Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin and former Prime Minister Paul Martin.

In the days prior to the TRC’s main event, the ecumenical justice coalition KAIROS gathered 320 Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Ottawa for a three-day session that included stories and workshops. The continued relationship between KAIROS and Indigenous groups was apparent in the events surrounding the release of the TRC report, too. Church people's banners and signs were prominent during a May 31 walk for reconciliation — one that drew more than 5,000 people.

Following the report's release, Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of The Anglican Church of Canada, also read a statement on behalf of the four Canadian churches that had been most involved in running residential schools. Hiltz apologized for what had been done, expressed gratitude to survivors for coming forward and promised church support for the TRC’s recommendations.   

Despite having been a part of the 130-year history of residential schools, churches — at the very least — have a lengthy relationship with Indigenous peoples. After the last school closed in 1996, church-based justice organizations were among the country’s strongest supporters of Indigenous people. Their work focused on the recognition of treaties, a just settlement of land claims and the enshrinement of indigenous rights in the Canadian constitution when it was repatriated in 1982.

“Of all the non-governmental institutions in Canadian society, religious institutions have perhaps the greatest potential to foster awareness and understanding between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people," the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples said in its final report in 1996.

More recently, a highly committed group of church people have continued this work. That's a healthy foundation on which to assist Indigenous peoples to convince Canadians and their governments to do justice in their time.

Author's photo
Dennis Gruending is an Ottawa-based author, blogger and a former Member of Parliament. His work will appear on the second and fourth Thursday of the month. His Pulpit and Politics blog can be found at www.dennisgruending.ca.
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