By Retta Blaney
The church has been slow to account for the abuse of indigenous children in Canada’s church-run residential schools because words for such atrocities do not exist, says the Rt. Rev. Mark MacDonald. But he has hope that the injustices will finally be addressed.
“The primary obstacle to Canada and the church’s understanding of what happened is that we do not have a language that describes such horrific evil,” said the Anglican Church of Canada’s first National Indigenous Bishop. “The schools became magnets for pedophiles. A huge percentage of the children were sexually abused, physically abused.”
Wearing his long graying hair in a ponytail and with colorful beads over his clerical shirt, Bishop MacDonald delivered the opening keynote address to 40 participants at Practical Peacebuilding, a new joint program of Candler School of Theology and General Theological Seminary. He spoke at a dinner held Jan. 10 at the Desmond Tutu Center adjacent to General Seminary.
From 1870 to 1996, 130 different residential schools, most run by Anglican and other churches, including Anglican, were built on military models, he said. Indigenous children were taken from their families at about age 5 and returned when they were 16 or 17.
“The purpose was to destroy the family bond, the connection to culture and language, and to make it impossible for indigenous life to continue into the future,” he said. “It was for indigenous people to die out.”
The death rate from tuberculosis and other diseases at some schools was 30 to 50 percent, he said.
“The prominent feature was the graveyard. Now in Canada they’re spending thousands of dollars to find out how they died.”
Those who made it through the schools call themselves “survivors,” he said.
“The Christian church said its strategy is to make you disappear. Nobody tried to hide that.”
Altogether 150,000 indigenous children went through the schools; 80,000 are still living, the bishop said.
The church’s reaction is “a case study in when evil so swamps and floods a group of people they will deny it,” he said. “The church doesn’t have the capacity to describe or accept within itself what happened. There’s a tremendous amount of denial.”
He compared the physical punishment in regular schools and in those for indigenous children. “When you caned an English boy it was for him to accept his identity. When you caned an indigenous boy it was for him to deny his identity.”
Scripture, with phrases like powers and principalities, is better able than psychology to describe such “systemic evil,” he said.
“We are so wedded to our delusion of individual autonomy that when evil swamps our personal commitment, our piety, we don’t have adequate ways to describe it. Even people of kindness can become complicit in the worst type of evil.”
The first thing we as Christians must find is a way to speak about systemic evil, he said, because it still exists in issues of racism and sexism.
Second, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission needs to envision a healing alternative.
“We have to find a way to speak of a future that’s more than just a Christian future. Our task is to find a language that will translate our concerns to a broader public, the language of the land, ecology, and our relationship with land. There’s an ongoing dispossession of the land. It’s no longer the cavalry and John Wayne. It’s the oil companies and mining companies with a precision and effectiveness John Wayne could only wish he had.
“When you can find the language you can create forward movement.”
Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission is trying to make all citizens understand the poverty, suicide rate and multilayered trauma in the country’s indigenous communities, he said, “to get them to understand it through the eyes of a child.” He estimated about 25 such commissions have formed worldwide, but says Canada’s is the first exclusively on children and the first exclusively on indigenous people.
“I’m living in a lot of hope now. God is working among us. We have to develop the capacity to see what God is doing. People are beginning to listen, and listen big time.”
He said they’re recognizing that First Nations are nations, representing the fastest growing demographic.
“I’ve seen more change in the past year or two than in my whole life.”
The church moves slowly, he said, mentioning that the first time the Anglican Church of Canada discussed calling an indigenous bishop was in 1854. His appointment in 2007 is significant he said, because a bishop is the symbol of the people.
“It took awhile, 150 years actually, but it happened,” he said. “I entered this job as a kind of midwife for a self-determining indigenous Anglican church.”
Lindy Bunch, a seminar participant from Weslyan Seminary in Washington, D.C., said she had known a bit about the abuse of indigenous children before hearing the bishop’s talk.
“Being a white American Christian woman, it’s really powerful to hear these stories of how our nation was built,” she said. “We really need to struggle with that.”
Georgette Ledgister, a Candler graduate originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, also found it insightful. She said the church needs to learn lessons from the indigenous experiences in Canada to not act in a colonial manner and take over authentic traditions. “That hit most closely to home,” she said.
Retta Blaney is the author of Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life through the Eyes of Actors.
Photo by Michael Hudson/General Synod Communications