“The schools were government-designed but church-operated,” notes one of the developers of a project called Bring Back the Buffalo. “It’s part of the church history, and today churches and their people are learning and trying to respond appropriately.”
When the remains of as many as 215 children – some as young as three – were discovered on the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, BC, in May 2021, the relationship between Indigenous Peoples and mainline churches in Canada went from merely tense to extremely fragile.
“The image of those unmarked grave sites lodged in the public mind about how abusive the schools had been,” says Murray Pruden, who is Cree from the Goodfish Lake and Saddle Lake First Nations and the United Church’s national director for Indigenous ministries and justice. “We’d been so wrapped up in reconciliation efforts after the TRC [Truth and Reconciliation Commission],” he says, “but Kamloops shifted the focus to a profound message of truth. We suddenly needed to enter a much deeper dialogue,” he says. “We had to start from ground zero.”
Kamloops shifted the focus to a profound message of truth. We suddenly needed to enter a much deeper dialogue.Murray Pruden, United Church
It is, by now, common knowledge that the Canadian government instituted residential schools and designated certain mainline churches to implement them. In an unobstructed act of racism, Indigenous children were removed from their homes and placed in institutions that eliminated language, customs, and family ties. In many cases, the acculturation was achieved through abusive means, resulting in devastating, long-term effects and sometimes death, as evidenced by those mass graves.
Although public apologies occurred in the 1980s and 1990s, it wasn’t until 2006 that a class-action lawsuit – the largest in Canadian history – brought about the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, which recognized the damage done to Indigenous children placed in these schools. The agreement included federal government payments that amounted to $4.8 billion as of 2019 to more than 100,000 former students and the setting aside of money ($60 million) to establish the TRC, which began its work in 2008. The churches involved signed and agreed to pay financial and in-kind support for healing and reconciliation. To date, the Anglican, United, and Presbyterian churches have paid their amounts.
Prior to the formalized compensation packages, the churches had made efforts to redress the damage of the schools as soon as they made public apologies. The United Church, for example, has been working on reconciliation and healing since its first apology in 1986, Pruden says. Major restructuring came in 1996, when it began creating a national Indigenous church within the framework of the mainline church. A second United Church apology came in 1998. (The Anglican Church made a public apology in 1993 but started creating an Indigenous church only in 2019.)
How did we get here?
Long before the first residential school opened in the 1830s, North America was a battleground between various countries vying for its natural resources and land. In 1491, there were approximately 20 million Indigenous people in North America. By 1900, that number had dropped to about 234,000 in the United States and 85,000 in Canada. This history has been well documented by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Canadian Encyclopedia.
Although there was some awakening to the plight of Indigenous Peoples by the 1970s, it wasn’t until the 1980s and 1990s that public apologies were forthcoming from the federal government and the churches. And actual change was even slower. That is, until Kamloops.
Dawn Maracle is a Mohawk activist and educator from Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory. Two days before the Kamloops announcement, she was hired by the Anglican Church to work on its draft of the “Covenant of Reconciliation,” a co-creation of the parties to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement in response to the TRC’s Call to Action 46 that they “develop and sign a Covenant of Reconciliation that would identify principles for working collaboratively to advance reconciliation in Canadian society.” When Kamloops hit the media, though, her job changed. She and Mark MacDonald, who was the Anglican Church’s national Indigenous bishop at the time, discussed essential support for Indigenous communities who were now in crisis.
Canadians were becoming aware of what we’d been telling them for decades . . . I noticed a lot of settler allies, or budding allies, who realized they had a responsibility to learn more.Dawn Maracle, Mohawk activist and educator
The timing was in some ways opportune – it was the height of the pandemic, and journalists were reporting on struggling and marginalized communities, including Indigenous ones. “Canadians were becoming aware of what we’d been telling them for decades,” Maracle says. “In workshops I was doing, and communities I worked in, I noticed a lot of settler allies, or budding allies, who realized they had a responsibility to learn more.”
With Indigenous communities in crisis, much of the pastoral and counselling role has fallen on the shoulders of Indigenous ministers. One task of the Jubilee Commission – established by the Anglican Church’s General Synod in 2019 to “propose a just, sustainable and equitable funding base for the self-determining Indigenous Anglican church” – was to look at their salaries, and try to move toward parity.
While each diocese determines clergy stipends, most poorer dioceses haven’t the funds to pay a full living wage to ministers. And sometimes they haven’t the funds to pay any wage, in which case a minister must rely on a spouse’s income or work multiple jobs to support their family. In 2002, the House of Bishops designated a task force and reported that the majority of “non-stipendiary” ministers are Indigenous. Most have huge pastoral loads with ongoing high suicide and overdose rates. And that was before Kamloops.
We are in this parallel pathway, the settler church in its canoe beside us in ours.Murray Pruden
Pruden says the United Church experience was similar: “Our Indigenous ministers are overrun dealing with these issues. That affects the whole church because this is our membership, and when one part of the body hurts, the whole body hurts.” Dealing with these issues takes money, he admits. “How much is hard to say. But the Indigenous church should be directing where the money goes, in partnership with the settler church. We are in this parallel pathway, the settler church in its canoe beside us in ours. We have a shared history as Christians, faith-building members going in the same direction. That means we support each other and work on financial obligations together.” An example, Pruden says, is the current plan to alter economic structures to allow the development of an autonomous Indigenous organization within the United Church of Canada.
In addition to their responsibility to fulfil the 2006 agreement, churches have made efforts to fundraise for programs that don’t fall within the agreement’s mandates. Since Kamloops, the public has become more aware of the abuses. It’s well documented that churchgoers donate more money, goods, and time to causes than secular people; the Panel Study of Income Dynamics found that those who attend church in the United States give almost $3,000 annually, compared to $704 for non-attenders. In the past few years, a good deal of that money has been designated specifically for Indigenous programs.
There’s a level of guilt in the church in Canada today.Wayne Johnson, Tearfund
Some of this is remorse over the church’s history with residential schools. “There’s a level of guilt in the church in Canada today,” says Wayne Johnson, executive director of the international development agency Tearfund. “Residential schools were government-designed but church-operated. It’s part of the church history, and today churches and their people are learning and trying to respond appropriately.”
Will Postma is the executive director of the Anglican Church’s humanitarian agency, PWRDF (Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund). “The time is right for us as an ecumenical community to learn and engage and support. Our support base is certainly giving more to Indigenous projects,” he says, “but so are others, like corporate groups who’ve learned of us online and from others.”
It’s an opportunity for us to work together, support their priorities, and for us to learn.Will Postma, Anglican Church
There’s been greater interest in providing safe water, increasing youth engagement, promoting language learning, and supporting summer camps, Postma says. “Indigenous communities, as well, are inquiring about whether we can support community-led programs of suicide prevention and trauma response. It’s an opportunity for us to work together, support their priorities, and for us to learn.”
At Hillside Community Church in Tottenham, Ontario, and Green Valley Alliance in Bradford, volunteers have for the past 20-plus years partnered with the First Nations community of Mishkeegogamang, 500 kilometres north of Thunder Bay. Together they’ve developed kids’ summer programming and projects to address housing and food scarcity. They’ve also launched the True North Aboriginal Partnership, which works with various Ontario charities responding to First Nations’ needs. The goal is always to create sustainable projects that communities can continue on their own.
Tearfund recently developed a project called Bring Back the Buffalo, which would also address food sustainability for Indigenous communities. Its vision statement is “to plant at least ten Buffalo herds on First Nations land as an act of reconciliation, identity restoration, friendship, and the love of our Creator.”
At one time, 45 million buffalo roamed North America. By 1900, only 550 were left. Although their numbers rose to 250,000 by 2010, that was mostly on ranches, with fewer than 5,000 roaming on Indigenous lands. Johnson says that Tearfund’s history in Africa and Asia has led to some valuable principles that work as well for this North American venture: “The buffalo project had to be led by Indigenous leaders, all must be treated with dignity, it must be training-oriented, and we must plan on leaving from day one.”
These skills were lost 150 years ago and must be relearned. With the buffalo coming back, and people regaining the skills, these communities can become self-reliant again.Wayne Johnson
With Bring Back the Buffalo, the First Nation provides the land and builds the fence. Tearfund provides funds to purchase the herd. It also provides mentoring on how to raise buffalo, cull the herd, and skin the carcasses. As Johnson explains, “These skills were lost 150 years ago and must be relearned. With the buffalo coming back, and people regaining the skills, these communities can become self-reliant again.”
The concreteness of the buffalo project prompts generosity. Trulls Road Free Methodist Church in Courtice, Ontario, for example, isn’t a megachurch, but the congregation still raised $25,000. Every year, they earmark their Advent offering for a special project, and in 2021 it was for Bring Back the Buffalo. “We’d been asking as a congregation how to engage in reconciliation but had no capacity for this on our own,” says pastor Jon Grant. “We’d begun talks with Indigenous Christian leaders and some ministry partners, which led us to the buffalo project. Tearfund and the Free Methodist intercultural engagement team were significant in the process.”
Exchange visits between the church and the Cote First Nation, which was receiving the herd, enhanced the church’s desire to become involved. “We became like friends talking about a good thing, not in some naive kumbaya moment, but part of a movement forward,” Grant says.
I really didn’t know much about Canadian history before this, but listening to people in the Indigenous community, and learning why there are no more buffalo, I now feel much more aware.Jon Grant, Trulls Road Free Methodist Church
In exchange, the congregation gained an education, he says. “I really didn’t know much about Canadian history before this, but listening to people in the Indigenous community, and learning why there are no more buffalo, I now feel much more aware. And that has helped us understand the challenges and opportunities of doing reconciliation.”
Although PWRDF is an arm of the Anglican church, it relies mostly on individual donations. Ever since the landmark apologies by church and state, it’s worked to partner with Indigenous-led communities. From flood relief for Peguis First Nation in Winnipeg to supporting the return of Mi
'kmaw cultural artifacts from the Smithsonian Institution to their Nova Scotia communities, to supporting healing tools used by the Gitxsan community in BC, programs range in size and are usually ongoing.
One of PWRDF’s largest endeavours is a safe-water and indoor-sanitation program in Pikangikum First Nation. It all started when people in the pew and community groups became concerned about Indigenous communities’ living conditions. The group is now known as Pimatisiwin Nipi (“Living Water”) Group and has raised money and awareness. PWRDF is also supporting the establishment of cultural centres by the Mohawk in Kahnawake, Quebec, and the Mi
'kmaw in Nova Scotia. During the pandemic, it financially supported the use of traditional Ojibway medicines in Manitoba and contributed to a business-strategy program for Indigenous youth in BC and an Edmonton midwives’ clinic run by a Métis woman.
To stay on track, PWRDF meets twice a year with an Indigenous program advisory committee, including once per year on Indigenous lands.
In 2021, it launched the Indigenous Responsive Grant Fund to respond quickly to priorities as presented by Indigenous communities, some of which develop into longer-term programs. In every project, Indigenous people lead and the agency works alongside in support roles.
For those who’d rather donate time or money to non-church-related organizations, Maracle says hundreds of Indigenous organizations can use the help. Her own foundation is called HOPES –Healing Our People through Education, Sports and Social Justice. One of its aims is to increase ability around Haudenosaunee stick games, including lacrosse, which is seeing a resurgence. Donations of money, but also equipment, really help: “If they don’t have equipment, they can’t continue.”
Relations and trust have to be built before we can dive into the deep topics. And it has to happen slowly, because some things you just can’t rush.Murray Pruden
Then there are the soft skills that don’t involve money but take time and personal commitment, Pruden says. “Like getting to know your neighbour – and not just on Indigenous Peoples Day. This needs to be ongoing.” And don’t worry about saying the wrong thing, he adds. “It’s OK to make a mistake. That’s how we come to understand each other. I’ll tell you if something you say bothers me. More important is to keep talking.”
The effort to develop relationships builds trust, he says. “When that happens, stories are shared and understanding follows. This has to happen before we can dive into the deep topics and greater issues. And it has to happen slowly, because some things you just can’t rush.”