The Papal Apology Reminds Us of Our UCC commitments

Tony Snow

By Tony Snow, Indigenous Minister, Chinook Winds Region
Today we hear words of apology for those who have waited to hear the recognition and contrition of the Papal office for generations. The apology is the first step in the work of the denomination that was outlined in the Truth and Reconciliation Calls to Action. 
In The United Church of Canada, we know that this is a long and difficult path. In 1980, Alberta Billy from the We Wei Kai Nation stood before the United Church’s General Council Executive and told them they needed to apologize for what the church did to them in residential school.

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After many years of ecclesial and legal wrangling, the UCC offered its First Apology in 1986. The apology signed by the Very Reverend Robert Smith focused on the church’s part in colonization and the work of assimilation: “We tried to make you be like us and in so doing we helped to destroy the vision that made you what you were.” A response came in 1988 from Saddle Lake First Nation Elder Edith Memnook on behalf of the All Native Circle Conference within the United Church of Canada. They acknowledged but did not accept the apology, saying: “The Native People of The All Native Circle Conference hope and pray that the Apology is not symbolic but that these are the words of action and sincerity.” At the challenge of the ANCC, the church entered into a time of testing and discernment about the nature of the apology and the work of reconciliation within the denomination.

In 1998, this discernment led the Very Reverend Bill Phipps to issue the Second Apology, an apology focused on the tragic history and ongoing trauma experienced in the residential school system. This apology was an acknowledgement of the church’s role in the abuses and harm the children and families experienced: “To those individuals who were physically, sexually, and mentally abused as students of the Indian Residential Schools in which The United Church of Canada was involved, I offer you our most sincere apology.”

The work of apology is the beginning. In the path toward reconciliation there is a recognition of sin, the harm caused and the deeds committed, this brings to light the nature of offences in order to determine the measure of reparation/atonement. It guides the work of reconciliation to bring repair not just to those abused, but to the theology and perspective that caused the offence, and the measure it will take to bring the denomination into the right relationship, including the restoration of the rights and the dignity of Indigenous people. The Second Apology set in motion the church’s path toward the acknowledgement of truths and the steps needed to achieve reconciliation.

In 2003, Phil Fontaine led a class-action suit based on the abuses committed by the Indian Residential Schools. The Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement was signed in 2007 by Canada and the ecumenical partners named in the action and led to the 2008 federal apology delivered by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the House of Commons “to acknowledge the inter-generational damage caused by this policy to former students of Indian Residential Schools, their families and communities; to offer an Apology; and to ask for forgiveness from the Indigenous peoples of this country for failing them so profoundly.” 

The Settlement Agreement called for the Federal Apology and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to determine the nature of the abuses, the gravesites of those children who died in the schools as a result of abuse and neglect, and the Calls to Action: recommendations on the path forward for signatories to the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement (like the UCC and other denominations), as well as recommendations for governments, municipalities, industries, businesses, non-profits and institutions of culture like museums. 

We continue this path on our journey toward reconciliation. We understand that this journey is intergenerational, and has already taken many generations to achieve the advancement we see today; with the fallen lives of our ancestors, brothers, sisters, aunties, uncles, grandparents and great grandparents remembered in the genocide that has taken place over generations. 

Today is a day of discernment. We must understand our past in order to move forward. We must acknowledge that our world could have been a much different place if we had practised our Christian values and teachings to accept one another, be good relations and neighbours, care for one another, and to love one another. As our Catholic brethren enter into this apology and time of discernment, we offer prayers for their path, and the wisdom we will share from our experiences, knowing that together we seek a better society for all, with hope, charity and goodwill.