If someone told me of the discovery of an unmarked mass burial site, containing 215 (or 104 or 751) little bodies disposed of like so much garbage, I would guess that perhaps it was done by the Nazis. Or the Armenian genocide. Perhaps the Rwandan genocide.

I would never have guessed that it was done by the people of God, and in my own country. And these are only the firstfruits of the dead little ones who assuredly number in the thousands, who we will continue to find in the coming days and months and years.

I am sure there are some who would snicker at my naivete. How could I doubt that a colonial nation like Canada would not have skeletons, figurative and literal, in our past? How could I doubt that the church, so often complicit with or even the cause of a variety of atrocities, would be capable of this? I suppose I don’t have a good answer. I’ll accept the charge of naivete, because I want to believe the best about people, especially when there is a way in which those people are my people. That is simply human nature.

Photo credit: Murray Hibbard

This is the literal unearthing of the truth of the Canadian Residential School System, a program of cultural genocide that operated jointly between the Canadian government and churches for more than 100 years. During the operation of the schools, more than 150 000 indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and sent to these residential schools where they were not permitted to use their language, keep their customs, or practice their faith. They were punished brutally for lapses (or worse, rebellion) in these matters, underwent forced “conversions” to Christianity, were the unwitting subjects in medical and social experiments, and suffered tremendous physical and sexual abuse. Death due to disease (especially tuberculosis), malnutrition, neglect, and the brutal punishments was rampant. Families were not necessarily notified upon the deaths of their children. Records were not consistently kept. Death rates in some schools in the early part of the twentieth century were 50-70%. Presumably the death toll dropped sharply in later years, as there are now living 80 000 individuals who attended the residential schools. But it is equally clear from their testimonies that the psychological, physical, and sexual abuse did not likewise diminish. The official number of deaths stands somewhere around 6000, but if more than 1000 unmarked graves have now been found at only three of the roughly 140 schools that operated, then clearly the true number must be far higher.[1]

I have struggled over these last weeks to make sense of this, as both a Canadian and a Christian. I keep rolling around in my mind, “What does it mean to be Canadian? What does it mean to love my country? What does it mean to be proud of my country? Can I do that? Can I be that?” And I can’t find good answers to those questions because there is no firm basis. Countries don’t have luxury of much objective reality: they are judged on the basis of the perceptions of their citizens and the international community.

And so before I can address this as a Canadian, I find that I have to address it as a Christian – which, in any case, is the more important consideration. As a Christian, I believe that God has spoken to us in his word, in scripture. That is where I go to find a baseline of truth. That is where I go to understand my world. That is where I go, primarily, to hear from God. A few different snippets of texts have been rolling through my mind. But perhaps this is the one to which I continually return:

“My people have forgotten me; they make offerings to worthlessness . . . they put horror in their land, a thing to be hissed at forever. Everyone who passes by it is horrified and shakes his head.” (Jer 18:15-16)

My people . . .” Not Canada, of course, for there is no “Christian nation,” but rather the church. The church is the people of God.

Image, creative commosn: Bsadowski1

My people have forgotten me,” We are not always the faithful people of God. I am sure there are many possible reasons why one community – or many communities – of God’s people might cease to be faithful, but at the end of the day the reason doesn’t matter much. Faithlessness is forgetting God. And it is evident that too often the church in Canada had forgotten him.

They make offerings to worthlessness.” While in an ancient Israelite context “offerings to worthlessness” is surely a reference to idolatry, I can think of little that would be a better description of complicity in the evil acts of a political system than “offerings to worthlessness.” We sold ourselves to the state, instead of remaining faithful to God. We allowed the state to woo us with cheap and empty promises of “power” and “God’s work,” instead of seeking God’s face and the leading of the Spirit to tell us what faithfulness would look like. When God’s people forget him and turn away from him, we are capable of terrible evil.

They put horror in their land, a thing to be hissed at forever.” How else can we describe the evils of the residential school system, but a “horror in the land” put there (at least in part) by the church? Perhaps a hundred years of the evil of the residential school system is not quite forever, but trauma theory would tell us we must take a long view of things. It is not only that this reality will be remembered for a long time, it will shape our nation, and most especially the people and the families who suffered through it, for generations. This trauma was inflicted upon entire communities, entire people groups. Our native communities will continue to hiss, perhaps forever – and rightly so.

Everyone who passes by it is horrified and shakes his head.” It galls me that it took so long to get here. The church, the government, our educational system – everything conspired together to prevent average Canadians from “passing by,” from seeing what had happened, from being horrified, for far too long. This is perhaps especially so since the residential school system is not a long past reality, but one that persisted until very recently.[2] We are horrified now. We shake our heads now. But it seems like a shallow, meaningless thing.

And so what does the church have to say? So far, very little. What do I, as an individual Christian, have to say? So far, very little. I can’t explain that kind of evil. I certainly won’t defend that kind of evil. I absolutely condemn the evil that was perpetrated on our native population – for whatever that’s worth. I apologize that the church has done such terrible harm to fellow humans who bear God’s image – for whatever that’s worth. But ultimately there is no word that does not seem hollow, and no action that can reverse generations of systematic evil.

I think we have come to a place, as a church, as the people of God, where our best work is going to be to sit and listen. Christians are used to doing the talking. And talking is good, if you know what to say. Talking is good, if what you have to say is worth hearing. But at the moment, we do not know what to say, and I think little that we have to say is worth hearing. Right now, much talking would be bad. Right now, we must listen, and repent, and learn.

We must listen to those we have harmed.

We must repent of attitudes and structures and practices that have oppressed and violated others.

We must learn how to create churches where human life flourishes.

We must work to see that vision become reality.

And in another day – and we cannot yet know when that will be – when we have listened and repented and learned, perhaps the church can tell a story.

It’s another story of a wrongfully killed, battered, broken body. A body that at the end of its torment didn’t even look human anymore. A body tortured to death at the urging of those who believed that they knew God’s will. A body that suffered death, and yet not senselessly, but rather so that death and evil could be unmade. A body that will always bear the scars of torment, but that has been gloriously transformed. The body of the Lord of creation who is making all things new.

Creative commons: Pisit Heng

It is the best, truest story that I know. And ultimately, it is the only story that can make sense and peace in a world of senseless violence.

Ashley Hibbard lives in Canada, and is a research associate with the CSBV and an adjunct lecturer at African Christian College, Eswatini.

[1]    Much of my information in this paragraph was obtained here: https://www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/truth-and-reconciliation-commission-by-the-numbers-1.3096185

[2]    The last residential school closed in 1996.

[1]    The last residential school closed in 1996.

Canadian Residential Schools – one Canadian Christian responds
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2 thoughts on “Canadian Residential Schools – one Canadian Christian responds

  • 28th June 2021 at 3:21 pm

    I’ve thought about these very things recently: so much so, that it shames me that I am a Canadian, not that it was anything that I personally did, but that it happened in the country I was born in and live in. BUT SOMEHOW … I feel that I contributed to it because of the “great” country I live in. EVEN TODAY, indigenous ladies are taken away at birth and isolated.

  • 29th June 2021 at 10:32 am

    “I think we have come to a place, as a church, as the people of God, where our best work is going to be to sit and listen.”

    We, as the church, have failed miserably at this.


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