by Rev. Joan Kessler
Today we commemorate Orange Shirt Sunday, and as a community we recommit ourselves to learning about our past history with Indigenous peoples. Why is this work so important to the United Church of Canada? This year, I invite us to look at a significant part of our church history that has shaped us to who we profess to be today.
Back in 1981, at a meeting of the General Council, the highest court of the church, Alberta Billy from a First Nation in British Columbia, asked for an apology from the United Church of Canada over how the institution treated her people and had participated in running Residential Schools. Her bold and brave request charted the course for the United Church. Alberta Billy passed away in June of this year, but I want us to take the next few minutes to listen to an interview she gave about what happened at a church gathering back in 1981 and the events that followed:
From: Truly and Humbly: Memories of the First Apology https://youtu.be/ORG18pfPYDo
Jim Taylor was also present at General Council at that momentous meeting in Sudbury in 1986 and I invite Jim to come forward and share his memory of this special event.
"I was there when all this started – August 15, 1986. My church, the United Church of Canada, issued an apology to what were then called Native Peoples for the treatment they had received. From us. From white churches, white governments, white society.
I wasn't working for the church in 1986. I was there as a journalist.
The church’s General Council was meeting in Sudbury, at Laurentian University. The evening of August 15, about 500 delegates (officially called commissioners) crowded into the main assembly hall to hear Moderator Bob Smith present the text of The Apology. The capital letters are deliberate.
Smith was convinced that the church needed to apologize. Not just for having collaborated in running some of the Indian Residential Schools – even though the reality of abuses committed at those schools was only just beginning to surface. But even more, for having denigrated, dismissed, and de-valued the social and spiritual culture of Canada’s indigenous people.
Smith had drafted the apology himself. Now he had to convince 500 commissioners to accept it. By consensus. The United Church had little experience with consensus. Traditionally, church meetings ran on parliamentary procedure: motion, amendment, amendment to the amendment…
The commissioners agreed to seek consensus, and immediately started moving amendments. As Moderator, Smith broke tradition. He refused to accept amendments. Formal or friendly. He knew they would lead to further amendments, points of order, points of privilege, and mutters of discontent. At times, he had to plead with the assembly: “Can we just agree on this?”. Eventually, they did. From there on, my memories are less precise.
I know that Bob Smith led the entire assembly, all 500 of us, out into the night. It was a dark night. Moonless, I think. The stars were so close, we felt we could reach up and touch them. We walked up to the end of the parking lot, where the "Native" delegates had set up a bonfire.
The bonfire sent sparks up into the darkness to meet the stars. I remember its flames flickering on the teepees of the “Indian” encampment. I think I remember seeing Bob Smith go into one teepee carrying The Apology. I remember seeing the shadows of people moving around inside the teepee as he read it to the indigenous leaders.
Then my memory blurs. Did they come out together? Did Bob Smith read The Apology aloud to everyone gathered around the fire? Or did they simply declare that The Apology had been received? Not "accepted," because that would imply finality. But "received."
I recall a lot of hugging and handshaking. And some tears shed. Perhaps we sang a hymn – that‘s often how we demonstrate unity.
And then we walked home. They, to their accommodation. We, to ours.
And tragically, it is still so."
Today we acknowledge stories of pain experienced by those who attended residential schools and were inter-generational survivors. This experience in our church that you heard described by Alberta Billy and Jim’s firsthand account led to change.
Hearing these memories shared…Wisdom comes to us… Our reading from Proverbs today reminds us and calls us back… She is here. She is the energy of a child, playing and delighting in all things of God’s good creation. She has been here since the beginning. Before there was earth, before the cosmos, before there was water or mountains or fields of dry land, wisdom was with God. She was and is and forever will be more than intelligence. She is good and wise thinking. She is the Knower, the worker of all things coming together. She is the Spirit at work. She is the divine feminine.
How do we do the work of reconciliation? Truth is to be shared before reconciliation can take place. Wisdom asks us to take down our defenses and listen; to learn our history. Someone once said that wisdom is the embodiment and agency of moral coherence in creation. Moral coherence insists that deeds and consequences come together. The world is not randomly disconnected so that we can do whatever destructive thing we want without being accountable to the consequences. Creator God, through wisdom, assures the connection between the choices we make and the outcomes; its like fully living the proverbial saying, we reap what we sow. Wisdom is generative which means that good choices, living in right and respectful relationships will bring the peace of shalom for both self and for community. Being wise, living God’s truth, is bringing one’s life, one’s conduct and rule of life into coherence with this peace and understanding.
1986 Apology to Indigenous Peoples
Long before my people journeyed to this land your people were here, and you received from your Elders an understanding of creation and of the Mystery that surrounds us all that was deep, and rich, and to be treasured.
We did not hear you when you shared your vision. In our zeal to tell you the good news of Jesus Christ we were closed to the value of your spirituality.
We confused western ways and culture with the depth and breadth and length and height of the gospel of Christ.
We imposed our civilization as a condition of accepting the gospel.
We tried to make you like us and in so doing we helped to destroy the vision that made you what you were. As a result, you and we are poorer, and the image of the Creator in us is twisted, blurred, and we are not what we are meant by God to be.
We ask you to forgive us and to walk together with us in the Spirit of Christ so that our peoples may be blessed and God’s creation healed.
The Right Reverend Bob Smith
General Council 1986
The United Church of Canada
Two years later, at the 32nd General Council, the Indigenous church acknowledged the apology, expressing its hope that the church would live into its words. Mrs. Edith Memnook, a representative of the All Native Circle Conference, said:
"The Apology made to the Native People of Canada by The United Church of Canada in Sudbury in August 1986 has been a very important step forward. It is heartening to see that The United Church of Canada is a forerunner in making this Apology to Native People. The All Native Circle Conference has now acknowledged your Apology. Our people have continued to affirm the teachings of the Native way of life. Our spiritual teachings and values have taught us to uphold the Sacred Fire; to be guardians of Mother Earth, and strive to maintain harmony and peaceful coexistence with all peoples.
We only ask of you to respect our Sacred Fire, the Creation, and to live in peaceful coexistence with us. We recognize the hurts and feelings will continue amongst our people, but through partnership and walking hand in hand, the Indian spirit will eventually heal. Through our love, understanding, and sincerity the brotherhood and sisterhood of unity, strength, and respect can be achieved.
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. We appreciate the freedom for culture and religious expression. In the new spirit this Apology has created, let us unite our hearts and minds in the wholeness of life that the Great Spirit has given to us."
The United Church of Canada was the first institution to apologize to Indigenous peoples for their role in the harm of residential schools. The action of Alberta Billy, standing up for her people and speaking her truth, led the way for other churches to do the same. The Government of Canada did not offer its apology until 2008, and this led to the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission; the testimonies it received over years of hearings with Indigenous people, school survivors as well as affected family members. The result of this work gives us the 94 Calls to Action which we are charged with learning about and acting upon.
Apologizing is slow work. And so too is healing and reconciliation. This is the work of wisdom. We just heard words of invitation from Indigenous people to live in peaceful coexistence with them. They ask us to learn and gain understanding of what they experienced and how it damaged them as a people. We are at one with the earth and our service today is about restoring this balance and precious gift. God creates through Spirit and through Wisdom, a right-knowing of relationship. We celebrate this as God ever-present in all creation, the Spirit at work, the longing for Wisdom to prevail.
As we head into this week of Truth and Reconciliation, we might reflect on these good questions posed to all Canadians by Reconciliation Canada:
How do we weave our resilience together to create something better than we could have alone?
How do we make lasting change that goes beyond a single day?
How do we show up as our best selves in these challenging times.
May Wisdom find us this day and all days to come as we walk the path of reconciliation and right relationship with all our relations. Amen.