Readers are advised that this story mentions Indigenous children’s physical and sexual abuse in institutions. No graphic accounts are included, but the topic may be triggering for some people.
This weekend, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby unequivocally apologized to children, grandchildren, and survivors of Canadian residential schools, describing their experience as “a bit of hell” that was “built by the Church and in the name of the Church”.
The leader of the Anglican Church met with dignitaries from indigenous governments from James Smith Cree Nation and the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, representing 74 First Nations in Saskatchewan. There he heard school survivors’ stories of how the residential school system tore families apart, evoked doubts and self-confidence, and left them traumatized by sexual and physical abuse.
“It’s the rawest, meanest, most horrible thing to molest a child while reading the Bible to them,” a gloomy Welby told the group after hearing the harrowing stories.
Many survivors said they were not blaming the Church, but instead the individuals acting on behalf of the Church. Welby disagreed.
“The grace you showed by saying it wasn’t the Church that did this… it’s an extraordinary grace. I guess I’m saying that maybe that’s all I’m wondering. No, it wasn’t the Church that did it. But it was the Church that allowed it. That allowed it. That was blind to it. And sometimes still,’ he said.
“And for that dreadful crime, sin, evil, of willful, conscious, stupid – because evil is stupid – building a hell, putting children in it, and operating it, I’m more sorry than I could ever express.”
That is, personally and in my role as Archbishop of Canterbury, senior bishop of the Church of England, and first among equals of nearly a thousand bishops in the Anglican Communion — the 80 million people. Sorry. I’m more sorry than I could say. I am ashamed. I am shocked.”
“I’m more sorry than I can say. I’m ashamed; I’m shocked” – Archbishop Justin Welby.
The Anglican Church was just one of four Christian denominations that operated Canada’s residential schools for over a century. While the Roman Catholic Church administered most of the schools, the Anglican Church administered 36 schools between 1820 and 1969.
Canadian “Indian”* residential schools were part of the Canadian government’s policy of forced assimilation that resulted in the oppression of generations of children who were indigenous to Canada. But the Church’s treatment of Indigenous children in their care was not up to Christian standards – a fact documented by the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
Canada’s TRC was conducted from 2007 to 2015 and cost the national government an estimated $72 million. More than 6,500 witnesses across the country were interviewed. Seven national events were held to engage the Canadian public, educate people about the history and legacy of the residential school system, share the experiences of former students and their families, and honor them.
In 2015, when the TRC released its report, a formal apology from the Pope was one of more than 90 recommendations. The Pope apologized in early April of this year (2022) and pledged to visit Canada later to meet with indigenous communities to assist in reconciliation efforts.
Welby’s apology was well received by at least one survivor who shared his story, Dennis Sanderson. Sanderson attended Gordon’s Indian Residential School, about 100 miles northeast of Regina, for three years before attending All Saints Residential School in Prince Albert. The Anglican Church operated both.
“I accept that the Anglican Church says ‘I’m sorry, that the Roman Catholic Church says ‘I’m sorry because I grew up to forgive in the later years of my life. To forgive what was given to me, to forgive what was taken from me,” Sanderson told CTV News Saskatoon.
However, not everyone will be satisfied with an apology alone.
“What exactly is an apology? Is it just public relations? Does it feel good?” Saskatoon Cree’s attorney and former general counsel to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Donald Worme, told CBC Canada ahead of Welby’s visit.
“Deal with some of the historical ramifications they have been involved in as an Anglican Church. That would make sense.”
Women would like the Anglican Church to fund healing lodges and other programs for survivors and their families.
In 2006, the federal government, churches, and survivors signed the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement, which allowed churches to settle billions of dollars in liability from survivors’ lawsuits. Each Christian Church agreed to submit all relevant documents and pay a fee.
Worm and another former TRC attorney, Thomas McMahon, said the Catholic Church was “by far the most litigant and obstructionist” in the process, “but the Anglican Church has still not fully disclosed what it knows.”
The Anglican Church agreed to pay $15.7 million as part of the agreement. The Anglican Church and the United and Presbyterian churches soon complied and paid the full amounts they had agreed to. The Catholic Church did not.
But when the Catholic Church later entered into a side deal, and ultimately a controversial buyout that changed the compensation formula, the Anglican Church was refunded $2.8 million, according to the Anglican Church of Canada website. Anglican officials said the $2.8 million had been invested in Indigenous ministry programs.
The lawyers said the compensation and repayment might be legal, but they were inaccurate, especially given the churches’ wealth of assets.
On Saturday, after hearing survivors’ stories about residential schools, the lasting effects of the institution, and the trauma they have to live with, Welby said he would follow up on his apology with action. The Archbishop promised to talk to Archbishop Linda Nicholls, Canadian Anglican Bishop and Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, about how they can address the damage left behind, particularly through the Doctrine of Discovery.
“I want to avoid what happens too easily in times like these, which is to promise too much and deliver too little,” Welby said.
“I’d rather promise too little and deliver too much if God’s grace gives me the strength to do so.”
*”Indian” is now generally not used as a catch-all term due to its erroneous origins and connections to settler policies and departments. However, some individuals who are First Nations/Indigenous Peoples of Canada are still there to choose. Eternity uses it here to identify the historical term for the schools and later in the article as the name of an official agreement.
If you find the topic of this article shocking, please see support in your area. If your life is in danger, call the local emergency services. Some support services that may be helpful include:
In Canada, former Residential School students can call 1-866-925-4419 for emotional crisis referral services and information about other Canadian government health support. Indigenous peoples across Canada can also turn to The Hope for Wellness Help Line for counseling and crisis intervention 24 hours a day, seven days a week. 1-866-925-4419.