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Sharing the pain of the Indian Residential School legacy


Poplar Hill Residential School from “A Brief History of Northern Light Gospel Mission” (1977) (15 pp) by Mary Horst, courtesy of Conrad Grebel University Library. 

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July 16, 2010
Feature: Deborah Froese, 612 words
Supplement: Resolution from Christian Witness Council

Calgary, Alta.  Delegates to Mennonite Church Canada Assembly 2010 have expressed their support of Indian Residential School (IRS) survivors.

On July 2, 2010, they unanimously passed a resolution confessing the complicity of Mennonites “in the failing of the Christian Church” and its role in the residential school, and acknowledging “that destructive individual attitudes, such as paternalism, racism, and superiority are still present among us.”

The resolution was moved by Rudy Dirks and seconded by Lynell Bergen, each on behalf of Christian Witness Council.

Of 139 IRS identified by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) as participants in the horrific legacy of residential schools, only one such institution is generically associated with Mennonites; the since closed Poplar Hill School located in northwestern Ont. was run by the Northern Gospel Light Mission (now Living Hope Ministries) in Red Lake, Ont.

Reports from presenters at a June 17, 2010 Truth and Reconciliation Commission academic conference, Prairie Perspectives on Indian Residential School,
Truth and Reconciliation, referred to two other Ontario schools – Stirland Lake and Cristal Lake.

Neill von Gunten, who co-directs Mennonite Church Canada Native Ministry with his wife Edith, says that the Stirland and Cristal schools were not included in the Truth and Reconciliation process because they were defined as “day schools” thus excluding them from the federal government’s criteria for inclusion in the TRC list. The von Guntens believe that some students from distant communities may have boarded there, but at the voluntary request of their parents.

Another location, Timber Bay Home in Saskatchewan at Montreal Lake, also did not meet TRC criteria. Edith von Gunten says that Timber Bay is classified as a residence, but students attended the public school in town. Additionally, some parents – but not all – sent their children to Timber Bay voluntarily.

Von Gunten says he does not yet know the full extent of generic Mennonite involvement in Indian Residential Schools (IRS), but he does know that neither Mennonite Church Canada nor its predecessor, the Conference of Mennonites in Canada, operated IRS. The only involvement in schools for Aboriginals as a denomination occurred through Mennonite Pioneer Mission (MPM) – the forerunner of Native Ministries. Through staff already in place in Pauingassi and Bloodvein, Man., MPM operated two day schools, both of which were established at the request of local community leaders.

The search for further information continues. Although Mennonite Church Canada and its predecessor were not involved, the von Guntens say that over the years, members of some Mennonite Church Canada congregations, whether as representatives of those congregations or of their own volition, volunteered or supported these schools. The extent and nature of this involvement is currently unknown as is the existence of any additional, generic Mennonite connection.

However, Edith von Gunten notes that “In the eyes of the general public, ‘a Mennonite is a Mennonite’ and there are no distinctions between geographical locations or denominational affiliation.”

The Mennonite Church Canada resolution to open “our hearts, minds, and ears to engage the pain resulting from the legacy of the Residential Schools, and strive to recognize each other as sisters and brothers created in the image and likeness of one God” is in keeping with the missional approach of Mennonite Church Canada – building relationships to promote healing and hope.

Another resolution calling for further investigation into connections between the IRS and Mennonite Church Canada and its predecessors was withdrawn when it became clear that the information it was requesting had already been shared publicly.

As efforts continue to uncover these dark pages in Canadian and church history, the resolution passed by Mennonite Church Canada delegates affirms a desire to share the pain of the IRS legacy and seek healing for those who were affected by it.

Sidebar: Resolution: Residential Schools

Background: The Gradual Civilization Act of 1857 led to the formation of Residential schools for Métis, Inuit, and First Nations children. The Canadian government and churches ran these schools in partnership with one another*. The schools operated for about 130 years, and had over 150,000 children pass through them. The impact of this schooling on now seven generations of aboriginal peoples in Canada is enormous. While there were committed, loving teachers, the overall residential school experience was marked by abuses of power, physical punishment for speaking one’s own language, sexual and emotional abuse by persons in charge and other students. Its dubious legacy includes the breakdown of the family system, with successive generations raised in a context of increasing family and community detachment, violence and substance abuse.

In 1970 the Conference of Mennonites in Canada offered a litany of confession at its annual Assembly that confessed the significant failing of our own faith community in relating to “Indians,” seeing them ‘as converts’ but not as children of God, in recognizing them by the ‘colour of their skin but not as fellow human beings, friends, and brothers’ (and sisters) in Christ. In the early 1990’s some of the key national churches involved in running Residential schools made formal apologies to Aboriginal peoples. And finally in June 2008, the Prime Minister of Canada issued a formal apology on behalf of the government and people of Canada. Since that time common experience payments have been made to approximately 80,000 living survivors and private hearings for determining appropriate compensation for those most grievously abused or violated have been offered.

In addition a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was formed and is currently hosting a series of seven events in different regions of Canada. The events will allow survivors to tell their stories, to validate their experiences, and to educate the rest of Canada about this tragic part of our history which continues to shape families, relationships and our society as a whole. The first TRC event was held in Winnipeg, June 16-19, 2010 and had significant Mennonite Church Canada presence.

*There is one school included in the settlement that was Mennonite (but not Mennonite Church Canada) run. There are three additional Mennonite affiliated schools we know of whose students are requesting inclusion in the settlement. While none of these were formally Mennonite Church Canada run, the informal connections are less clear.

Resolution: Be it Resolved that Mennonite Church Canada congregations and individual members recognize and confess our complicity in the failing of the Christian Church and its role in the tragic physical, emotional, mental, and sexual abuse, denial of culture, language, and peoplehood of Aboriginal peoples in Canada. In recognition of this past failing, and in acknowledgement that destructive individual attitudes, such as paternalism, racism, and superiority are still present among us, we as Mennonite Church Canada congregations and as individuals will seek renewed opportunities to walk with Aboriginal people of Canada, opening our hearts, minds, and ears to engage the pain resulting from the legacy of the Residential Schools, and strive to recognize each other as sisters and brothers created in the image and likeness of one God.