By Tony Snow, Indigenous Minister for Chinook Winds Region
The Chinook Winds Region offers our sincerest condolences and prayers of comfort for the family of respected Elder Alberta Billy of the We Wai Kai Nation. It is through her leadership and courage that she called upon The United Church of Canada to apologize in 1981 for “what you did to us in residential schools.” In her search for justice, she spoke for a nation of Indigenous people who had been subject to the brutality and abuse of the residential school system that would only truly come before the nation’s conscience in 2021 with the discovery of 215 children in a mass unmarked grave identified by the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation.
Since that discovery, there has been a coming to terms with the effects of the residential school system that persists in government, industry, academic institutions, museums and communities. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action have become the standard by which we measure our commitment to offering real change so that the apology delivered by then Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2008 would move beyond mere words into action.
So too was the legacy of Alberta Billy’s work. Her tenacity and strength brought the issue to the forefront in a denomination that struggled to admit its complicity. Five years after the call for apology, The United Church of Canada, under the Very Reverend Robert Smith, issued an apology for colonialism. This apology was heard, but not accepted. The All Native Circle Conference responded in 1988 saying they prayed that the “Apology was not symbolic but that these are the words of action and sincerity.” Ten years later the Very Reverend Bill Phipps issued an apology for the residential schools. This apology demonstrated the leadership needed to begin the redress of issues that lingered far beyond the residential school era.
With the Indian Residential School Class Action suit led by Phil Fontaine, the apologies were put into action. A settlement was reached in 2007, which included a national apology by the Prime Minister in the House of Commons, and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission struck to uncover the history of abuse and indoctrination that had been inflicted upon all Indigenous people systematically, including the destruction of their way of life, their languages, their independence and their spiritual identity.
With her act of calling out, Alberta Billy put the nation on a path of reconciliation. She forced the issue to the table of our national church and challenged them to respond in a way that lived out their theology and doctrine. This was not an easy path. It has taken until today for us to really get to grips with what happened to honest and dignified people because of the colour of their skin and their different worldviews. And still, there are many who remain ignorant or blithely unaware of the history that has benefitted them so unequally in Canadian society.
It is with deep gratitude that we thank We Wai Kai Elder Alberta Billy for her contribution to our national narrative on reconciliation. She often quoted her grandfather’s words: “God has a purpose for you but we don’t know what that is.” Speaking in response she said that it was the apology that was her life’s purpose. After achieving that goal for us all, she faithfully followed the ways of Creator, boldly living out her discipleship as a changemaker, educator, and traditional knowledge keeper, ensuring we remembered the strength of Indigenous women, their leadership and calls for justice.
On this day, as we offer prayers for her next journey to the spirit world, we pay tribute to her life and the lessons her descendants will carry on for future generations. We were fortunate to be able to speak with Berta during our Lenten Series. We were very happy when she took the time to offer us a few words to teach us from her vast experiences and knowledge. We will cherish those memories and her teachings throughout our lives.