The Right Rev. Dr. Richard Bott, the Moderatorof the United Church of Canada, has acknowledged the church’s role in the dark past of residential schools and the pain the system has caused to the survivors, families and communities of Indigenous Peoples.
“I want to acknowledge the pain that you —as survivors of residential schools, families, and communities—are experiencing. We understand that the pain endured at these schools went far beyond their walls and grounds into community and through generations,” said Bott in a message released by the UCC.
“We are aware of cemeteries on some of these sites, and we know that there are also unmarked and likely undocumented graves of children. We acknowledge that our role in the residential school system and colonization is an abuse of power through our Christian faith. We hope that our ongoing work for reconciliation, which has been guided by United Church residential school survivors, more truly reflects what our faith calls us to be and do.”
The UCC used to run 15 residential schools spread out in the provinces of British Columbia (Alberni, Ahousaht, Coqualeetza, Elizabeth Long Memorial Home in Kitimaaat, and Crosby Boys’ and Girls’ Home in Port Simpson); Alberta (Edmonton, McDougall Orphanage/Morley and Red Deer); Saskatchewan (Cote formerly Crowstand, File Hills, and Round Lake); Manitoba (Brandon, Norway House and Portage la Prairie); and Ontario (Mount Elgin).
Bott said that their church had been working with the communities where their residential schools used to operate.
“We are committed to the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, especially those directed to us as perpetrators. These include those related to burial sites and missing children. In the spirit of truth telling and transparency, we want to share the work that we have done, in consultation with community, on identifying and restoring graveyards.
“The [UCC] in southwestern Manitoba has actively supported ongoing work on the identification and preservation of gravesites related to the residential school in Brandon; this includes the 104 graves identified off-site in 2018. In Saskatchewan, we supported the community of Okanese in preserving its graveyard and honouring the children buried there.”
He added that the UCC has also helped in preserving the cemetery at the Regina Industrial School, which was previously run by the Presbyterian church that they share responsibility with, and another cemetery in Red Deer, Alta., in cooperation with the communities whose children were sent to the boarding facility. They had also begun research on possible graves at the Edmonton Residential School.
Bott said that it is about time the sad stories of abuse experienced by Indigenous Peoples be heard.
“Steps are required to properly locate, identify and honour these children, and for the truth that Indigenous people have always known to finally be heard. Any work we do to help search grounds of and surrounding United Church residential schools must be done with respect for, the consent of, and with the guidance of Indigenous leadership, communities, survivors, and families.
“We know that we are not the experts in this work. We will continue to share all the documents and knowledge we have. If anyone in community wishes to share information and expertise with us, we will gratefully accept it and be committed to transparency.”
He added that they would continue to consult the leaders of the Indigenous Peoples on what needs to be done for reconciliation and healing.
“To hear how they wish to proceed, and whether they would like our assistance at any stage. This includes financial assistance for what community leadership deems appropriate. The United Church of Canada is committed to reconciliation and to transparency in our efforts to support Indigenous leadership, communities, survivors, and families in bringing these children the honour we denied them in life.”
‘Follow UCC’s lead’
The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations commended the UCC’s move saying that what they have done is a respectful lead in providing records and financial support to survivors and assisting in the search for more unmarked graves that is currently being done in former residential schools in Canada. They had also called on all the other Christian churches involved to follow UCC’s lead.
“We are calling on all churches involved to follow suit and immediately release all school records to their rightful owners, the First Nations.The United Church offered their acknowledgement and apology to survivors and missing children of Indian Residential Schools in committing acts of genocide against First Nations children in these horrific institutions,” the FSIN said in a statement.
FSIN Chief Bobby Cameron thanked the UCC for taking responsibility on their past actions. “We appreciate the acknowledgment and apology offered by the United Church. We ask that other church denominations that had a hand in these religious institutions to immediately follow along. These survivors and their families have suffered enough. They had to fight to survive, they shouldn’t have to continue fighting for a proper apology and compensation.”