Every Child Matters
The news of the discovery of the unmarked graves of what is estimated to be 215 children form the Kamloops Indian Residential school has produced all kinds of emotions.
Hubert Barton put it best for me, “it is like losing a relative – all the emotions of the pain of being part of a country that has as its history, the systematic attempt to destroy Indigenous peoples’ connection to land, family, creator, has led ultimately to Indigenous people being saddled with all kinds of wounds and hurts that have complicated their lives.”
When something like this happens then we are taken right back to the past and the pain for many Indigenous people is as if it just happened. That is the way these kinds of generational traumas work. I want to talk to you for just a short while about my thoughts and how the call from Indigenous people continues to be a call for reconciliation.
The Indigenous residential schools were Canada’s answer to how they would re-socialize or assimilate Indigenous people into Euro-Canadian culture. They did not want to embrace Indigenous identity, they wanted to eradicate Indigenous identity.
A quote from the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People states:
“The residential school system was an attempt by successive governments to determine the fate of Aboriginal people in Canada by appropriating and reshaping their future in the form of thousands of children who were removed from their homes and communities and placed in the care of strangers. Those strangers, the teachers and staff were, according to Hayter Reed, a senior member of the department in the 1890’s, to employ ‘every effort…against anything calculated to keep fresh in the memories of the children habits and associations which it is one of the main objects of industrial education to obliterate.’ Marching out from the schools, the children, effectively re-socialized, imbued with the values of European culture, would be the vanguard of a magnificent metamorphosis: the ‘savage’ was to be made ‘civilized’, made fit to take up the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship.”
They aimed at the children because they thought the adults were too hard to teach, so using the Indian Act, Canada legislated that Indigenous children had to attend residential schools.
But why would Church people take children away from their parents and seek to eradicate every relationship and value and practice that made them Indigenous, even though by 1867 many Indigenous people had embraced the gospel? The answer in part was a built-in racist colonial attitude that permeated Canadian society including the Canadian Church. The country of Canada was consumed with, as nation states were at the time, of having dominion from sea to sea. They saw Indigenous people as less civilized; and moral training, according to the Catholic principles of schools, was to supplant Aboriginal Spirituality which the Church said was just pagan superstition.
The Indigenous children were not Christian enough or they were not spiritual enough, and because Canadian Church people, as so many church people in many countries fancied themselves as Christian nations and thought they were bringing heaven to earth, ended up bringing hell instead. The unmarked graves of 215 children is further evidence of this reality.
Like the disciples, the Church was so busy trying to see who was the greatest, they missed seeing the beauty of Indigenous life and denigrated the identity of the people and treated the children with disdain, like they were not people at all, only tools to further the aspirations of the nation.
Thus the residential schools used every tool to sever or obliterate every relationship that children had with their people and culture.
They attacked the children’s relationship with land – sent them far away. They attacked the relationship with the family – the graves testify to what survivors and communities said through the TRC – relatives disappeared and no one told the family. They did not return the bodies of the deceased. They did not let them know. The church residential school was to be their mother. They attacked the relationship children had with the Creator.
If you define sin as anything that cuts off or prevents someone from feeling love and being able to receive love, then Canada is guilty of causing these little ones to be ravaged by sin. They ended up more firmly entrenching the effects of the fall – cursing Indigenous land – putting enmity between men and women, children and parents, people and people – driving them out of the presence of God into a land of torment – which led to children dying far from home and to children who grew up trying to get home but alienated from their own self.
If you define sin as anything that cuts off or prevents someone from feeling love and being able to receive love, then Canada is guilty of causing these little ones to be ravaged by sin. This is not the fault of the children. They are stuck in a state of self-contempt and unable to move forward. This is not the victims’ fault, and yet this sin holds them and they need the Creator to set them free.
That is why I hear the words of the passage – whoever causes one of these little ones to sin – better to have a millstone hung around their neck and thrown into the ocean. It is only the grace of God that gives forgiveness, even in the midst of all this. I hesitate to use the word forgiveness lest some Canadians use the word to avoid the legitimate shame that is theirs – shame that could help them change and work to heal the damage.
Canada has told Indigenous Children 5 lies:
You are no good.
You are not competent.
You don’t belong.
You are unlovable.
You shouldn’t exist.
In the light of this, it is not time for Churches to begin to point the finger at each other and say – it was them – or for Churches to claim, it wasn’t the Church. It was people in the Church. It is not to continue to sow seeds of division by claiming your church is innocent or your people group is innocent – everyone who calls Canada home is guilty. It is an objective state, not primarily a feeling. The feeling is either legitimate shame or illegitimate shame. The problem with most abusers is that they do not feel legitimate shame for their actions, they put the shame they should feel, on their victims. Instead of owning their own failures and using the shame to give energy to efforts to change, they go through a process of saying that they are innocent, or that they are not to blame. Or in a show of power and strength, they get angry and march out of the room or the meetings. And they look with nostalgia at the colonial racist legacy of Canada, that is, they actually don’t look at it but look with nostalgia at the past in Canada, as a time when the Church really did evangelism or really was growing – that is systemic racism.
Indigenous people are the most forgiving, long-suffering people I know.What should happen is that we should embrace our failures: metaphorically cut off a hand, gouge out an eye, take responsibility for what has happened and instead of claiming “all those people have to do is work harder, follow the rules and everything will be ok”, instead of them making the failure part of the story, and then work to write the next chapter where Canada stopped denying and promising but began to work to come up with a shared plan to heal the damage. – because God cares about children and people and he cares about Indigenous children and these 215 are with the Creator and are before the creator through eternity.
Indigenous people told the truth – they came to their relative, the Canadian people and they told them the things that Canada had done wrong.
Go to your brother or sister if they have sinned against. Indigenous people have done that and not so that they could sever the relationship with the newcomers but seeking reconciliation. Go tell them their sin – if they listen – you have a relationship affirmed.
If they don’t listen, take witnesses- Indigenous people did that – they began to file lawsuits and Canada and the Church had to take notice but still they resist – turn over the records.
If they will not listen take it to the Church – The United Church, the Anglican Church, the Presbyterian Church, parts of the Catholic Church begin to apologize and put pressure on Canada to own up to their sin.
Indigenous people are the most forgiving, long-suffering people I know. Even in the face of this further evidence of the attempted cultural genocide, they continue to call for reconciliation. Let us not miss the opportunity to feel deeply and continue the work of reconciliation.
I want to conclude with a story, a piece of prose I published in a book called Prophetic Evangelicals.¹
… The grandiose social experiments with my people were based upon the idea that you could kill the savage and save the man. Is it really possible to do that? After you have thrown away all the unnecessary trappings of culture do you have anything left? It seems to me this is occurring in the midst of our societies and churches. Slowly for the sake of some higher calling, more and more things are thrown away. Perhaps for efficiency’s sake we throw away the necessity of greeting one another or maybe even throw away the many smaller language groups and customs. One by one the dominant group throws away the unnecessary items, thinking, “these are not the essence of who we are.” Pollution, poverty, war, racism and all the other social problems all around us are a result of things being thrown away. Augustine would say that the good has been corrupted. The good has been pushed out and evil fills the hole. The good is distorted. There is a twisting that seems irreparable, except, somehow, if one could recreate a new heaven and a new earth.
I am from a group of those throw- away people. Many in the new country’s government believed that all the aboriginal people would soon be gone, they would cease to exist, throw away things. When they proved more resilient it was thought that certain aspects of their culture and way of life could be altered or thrown away. A plan was launched to make them more suitable to fit into modern culture.
“They would not be harmed in their essence. They will have the same rights as us. They will need to get rid of certain backward habits. Those unnecessary trappings of days gone by… They will have to move and establish a new identity.”
The residential schools did not work. Society itself cried out because of the brutality of the system.And so the residential school sought to rip the cultural identity out of the children. “Throw it out before they got too attached to these unnecessary uncultured ways. You know the things: language and songs, and the way they look at you.”
“We will teach them new language and new songs, and a better way to look right at people.”
It ended up producing drunkenness, AIDS, drug addiction, suicide, all corruptions, and the result of too many things thrown away.
The residential schools did not work. Society itself cried out because of the brutality of the system. It was abandoned but now children throw themselves away. The same twisting remains: drunkenness, suicide, drug addiction, STDs. But now children throw themselves away. They have forgotten who they are. No value, thrown away.
So, the church tries to respond. Tries to affirm the identity of people. They haul out the grand themes of the faith. They talk about justification, redemption, reconciliation, and salvation, but they still try and judge the essence and throw away things for my native people. They try to be the ones who make a new heaven and a new earth by talking about a new identity in Christ, but what does that mean? It is sort of like the phrase “God loves you.” It has become a meaningless phrase. Love means sex, or new cars, or the new car smell, the depth and breadth are gone in our current society. But if I say “God likes you.” The force of the statement causes you to draw back and wonder “could this be true?”
The statement, “my identity is in Christ,” what does it mean? Does it recognize that the sound of the wind and the smell of pine are a part of who I am? or are those throw away things? not important to the essence of who I am? Does it mean that when I feel the beat of the drum resonate right to the middle of my soul, is that a part of who I am? Or just a throw away part, not important for this new earth and new heaven the Church is busy constructing? Can I be an Indian anymore or is that something I can throw away?
There have been more unmarked graves found at additional sites and there will be more found in the future. We pray that the voices of these children will not go unheeded by the present generation. That we would heed their voice, so that we do all we can to change our society.
Rev. Dr. Ray Aldred is a husband, father, and grandfather. He was ordained with the Christian and Missionary Alliance in Canada. He is status Cree from Swan River Band, Treaty 8. Born in Northern Alberta, he now resides with his wife in Richmond, British Columbia, Canada. Ray is the director of the Indigenous Studies Program at the Vancouver School of Theology whose mission is to partner with the Indigenous Church around theological education.
1. Benson, B. E., et al. (2012). Prophetic evangelicals: envisioning a just and Peaceable Kingdom. Grand Rapids, Mich., W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.