Alberta Billy, a member of the Laichwiltach We Wai kai Nation in British Columbia, helped to shape the course of history of the United Church. In 1981, Billy stood before the leaders of the United Church and asked the church to apologize to the Native peoples of Canada for “what you did to them in residential school” (Troian, 2011). Billy was a lifelong member of the United Church who also represented Aboriginal church members at the Executive General Council.
There have been several apologies made with respect to the atrocious experiences suffered by Aboriginal peoples through their forced attendance at residential schools in Canada. The first apology made by any institution in Canada came from the United Church of Canada in Sudbury, Ontario in 1986. The year 2011 marked the 25th anniversary of this apology. The 1986 General Council, at its meeting held at Laurentian University, formally adopted the apology. The apology was presented to Elders from across the country, many faithful United Church people, who were gathered at a teepee that had been set up in the parking lot near the entrance to the university. The Elders were curious about what the General Council was going to say to them. The Elders present refused to accept the apology; instead, they ‘received’ the apology. This move by the Elders is significant in that to accept the apology would make it a thing of the past, while receiving it meant that further work needed to be done.
Since that moment, the people from the Manitoulin Conference’s Living Into Right Relations (LIRR) Home Group of the United Church have been working on providing ongoing leadership with respect to reconciliation. In 2012, they passed a motion at the General Council asking that all United Churches across Canada acknowledge the Indigenous territories that they serve. This Home Group also publishes “Minutes for Right Relations” similar to the “Minutes for Mission” that are shared with their congregations. The goal of the Home Group is to educate about the history of residential schools and to advocate on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) while encouraging other communities, institutions and governments to move forward in a good way.
The United Church had hoped to lead by example and encourage other churches to follow suit in making amends for their role in the residential school system and the devastating impacts of that system on Aboriginal peoples. On March 28, 2018, Pope Francis of the Catholic Church stated that he could not offer an apology for their role in Canada’s residential schools. This news was very discouraging for Aboriginal peoples in Canada, especially given that the Catholic Church ran almost two-thirds of all the residential schools in Canada. Part of the 94 ‘Calls to Action’ coming out of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is an apology from the Catholic Church.
The United Church of Canada was the first church to offer an official apology. Do an internet search about residential school apologies made by various church denominations. How many other apologies were made since that first apology in 1986?
Many Aboriginal Elders belong to various churches. Why do you suppose they still practice religious ceremonies, given that the residential school experience may not have been a positive one for them?
Why did the Elders not accept the apology? Do you think this was a good move?
Expanding Your Knowledge
The following link takes you to the United Church Apology to First Nations people. This link also contains a description of the revised crest of the United Church that displays spiritual and historic roots of the church, acknowledges the presence and spirituality of Aboriginal peoples in the church, and recognizes that the church was built on Indigenous land.
1986 Apology to First Nations Peoples
Martha Troian wrote an article in 2011 about the 25 year anniversary of the United Church of Canada’s Apology:
25 Years Later: The United Church of Canada’s Apology to Aboriginal Peoples
The following video is a reflection from the Manitou Conference Right Relations Home Group on the 25th anniversary of the United Church Apology to First Nations. While the Elders present at the time of the apology acknowledged and thanked the Church for their words, the Elders thought it wise to wait and see what would come out of the apology.
25th Anniversary United Church Apology to First Nations
The following video, Truly and Humbly: Memories of the First Apology (2017), directed by Hoi Cheu, Associate Professor from Laurentian University, provides background information to the first apology made by the United Church of Canada. This film includes highlights from key individuals such as Alberta Billy who initiated the request for an apology from the Church, the Right Rev. Bob Smith who led the Council to vote and others who were present at the time of the apology.
Truly and Humbly: Memories of the First Apology (Cheu 2017)
For more information about Pope Francis’ decision to make no apology, visit the following website:
No Apology for Canada’s Residential Schools, Pope Francis Says
There is plenty of news coverage on this topic.