During a Senate debate on March 7, 2017, Senator Lynn Beyak made some comments concerning the Indian residential schools system. These comments, which were widely reported in the press, have the potential to cause great harm to survivors of residential schools and to undermine the crucial work that the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) have put before all Canadians.
Indigenous peoples and organizations have responded to Senator Beyak’s comments. As one of the parties responsible for the operation of residential schools, The United Church of Canada also feels a responsibility to respond.
Senator Beyak spoke of the “good intentions” behind the residential schools system. Thirty years ago, The United Church of Canada apologized to First Nations Peoples for our role in colonization and the destruction of their cultures and spiritualties. In the process of preparing, delivering, and attempting to live out that Apology, we have learned that “good intentions” are never enough, and that to offer such words in explanation is damaging and hurtful.
The United Church of Canada participated in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission not just as part of a legal agreement but also as part of a moral and ethical commitment to understand the impact of our role in the residential schools system, to atone for it, and to participate in healing and building of a new relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada.
In June 2015, the churches and religious entities that operated residential schools welcomed the TRC Calls to Action as “the basis for a wide and transformative conversation among Canadians about the better future we intend to foster, not just for Indigenous peoples, but for all of us who long to live in a society grounded in right relationships and equity.” At that time we committed ourselves to education, and to healing, with leadership from Indigenous communities.
As the TRC Calls to Action make clear, education of all Canadians on the history of Indigenous peoples in Canada, the truth of the residential school story, and how the legacy of residential schools continues to play out in society are crucial. Without such education and understanding, we cannot hope for a new relationship. Senator Beyak’s comments remind us not to lose sight of that objective.
The United Church of Canada is also concerned that such statements may serve to re-traumatize residential school survivors, their families, and their communities. It is our hope that, moving forward, we will as a society be mindful of the ongoing healing work of Indigenous communities and recognize that we all have a role in this. May that help guide our words as well as our actions.
In 2 Corinthians, Paul reminds the Christian community that, through Jesus, we have been given the ministry of reconciliation. May we continue to practise that ministry with care and love.
The Right Reverend Jordan Cantwell
Moderator, The United Church of Canada