Archbishop of Canterbury promises release of residential school records in England following survivors’ calls

CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) [Toronto, Canada]

May 2, 2022

By Olivia Stefanovich

Commitment comes after meeting cancelled with survivors at former Mohawk Institute Residential School

The Archbishop of Canterbury says he will ensure any residential school-related records held by the Anglican Church in England are released, following calls from survivors. 

The church is facing demands from survivors who attended the former Mohawk Institute in Brantford, Ont., to disclose any records held overseas in hopes they may shed light on the true number of children who died at the residential school and where they are buried.

“Anything in the possession of the archives of the Church of England will be made available,” Justin Welby said at a media scrum on Saturday during a visit to James Smith Cree Nation, about 200 kilometres northeast of Saskatoon.

Welby was initially scheduled to visit the old site of the Anglican-run institute, which is now the Woodland Cultural Centre, during his trip through Canada, which runs from April 29 to May 3. 

The meeting was cancelled, however, after survivors from Six Nations of the Grand River, a Haudenosaunee community near Hamilton, Ont., said they would not participate unless the Anglican Church committed to financing Indigenous language revitalization and releasing all records held in England.

“If they’re not willing to do that, then there’s no sincerity in this at all,” said Roberta Hill, a member of the Survivors’ Secretariat, a survivor-led group leading ground-search efforts at the former school.

“They can’t go through the next generations and say, ‘You know what? We said we’re sorry. Let’s leave it at that and move on.’

“No, they owe our community, all of our communities.”

Survivor says truth is needed more than apology

Welby was scheduled to meet some members of Six Nations at the headquarters of the Anglican Church of Canada in downtown Toronto during a reception planned for Monday afternoon. 

He will no longer be able to attend due to a flight cancellation.

During a visit to Saskatchewan over the weekend, Welby apologized for the Anglican Church permitting terrible crime, sin and evil to occur at residential schools, which he said amounted to cultural genocide.

“I am more sorry than I could ever, ever begin to express,” he told survivors gathered at James Smith Cree Nation.

“To molest a child while you read them the Bible, how can a human being do that and look themselves in the mirror?”

The Anglican Church of Canada twice apologized to survivors, but this is the first time the top archbishop from the Church of England said sorry.

The first apology from the Canadian church was delivered in 1993, then in 2019 when the leader of the Anglican Church of Canada apologized in an open letter for the church’s “cultural and spiritual arrogance,” which it said caused harm to Indigenous people. 

Anglican leader apologizes for church’s role in permitting residential school abuses

[VIDEO: Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby apologized for the church’s role in ‘turning a blind eye’ to abuses suffered by survivors of Canada’s residential school system while visiting James Smith Cree Nation in Saskatchewan. ]

For Hill, who attended the Mohawk Institute from 1957 until 1961 and suffered abuse, the apology rings hollow.

“What I want is the truth,” she said. “Something was going on in this country and it was an attack against Indigenous children.”

The food was so bad at the Mohawk Institute that students dubbed it the “Mush Hole.” 

Children were punished for speaking their languages and forced to practice Christianity. 

The institution, which ran from 1828 until 1970 by the Anglican Church and Government of Canada, was the longest-operating residential school in Canada. Between 90 and 200 children were forced to attend the school each year from Six Nations and various other communities, according to the Survivors’ Secretariat.

Documents about Mohawk Institute’s early days believed to be held in England

The Survivors’ Secretariat sent a letter was sent to the church’s Office of the Primate on April 12 indicating they would be willing to meet with Welby, as long as he was prepared to discuss how the Anglican Church would provide financial support for the revitalization of Indigenous languages. 

The letter also requested assistance in retrieving records from the New England Company, which originally ran the Mohawk Institute, according to the secretariat. The Diocese of Huron later took over the school’s operation. 

Documents related to the institution’s early days are believed to be in England.

“We don’t have them and yet we know that the New England Company was very much involved in the residential school in the very early beginnings of the the set up of the Mohawk institute Residential School,” Hill said.

“It’s part of our history.”

Welby noted on Saturday the New England Company is separate from the Church of England, but committed to pushing for the release all records from Anglican-run residential schools.

“I will certainly use my influence to do that and push for that to happen,” he said. “I promise I will do that.”

Hill said the documents could shed light on the locations of burials for 48 children who died at the school, according to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.

“Where are they buried?” Hill said. “We haven’t seen any markers … There has to be accountability.”

Along with documents, survivors are also looking for funding to help revive Indigenous languages that residential schools sought to eliminate.

“When I look at how damaging the residential school system was, it was very instrumental in destroying language and culture,” Hill said. 

“The churches themselves, they are responsible financially for helping. We shouldn’t have to struggle with this.” 

Archbishop of Canterbury to speak to Pope about visit

Welby didn’t commit to providing that funding over the weekend.

But he said he would work with Anglican bishops at the Lambeth Conference in August to decide how to support survivors going forward. 

“I want to underpromise and overperform rather than overpromising and underperform, which is too much of our history,” Welby said.

“The way it seems to me that we’ve got to start with is how do we recognize what has been done, cultural genocide, how do we make sure it is remembered and taught and learned, and then how do we look at the process of healing?”

The Anglican Church had 36 residential schools — the most after the Roman Catholic Church — and more than 150 Indian day schools between 1820 and 1969.

The Anglican Church of Canada also paid $15.7 million, as required under the Indian Residential Schools Settlement.

The church was refunded $2.8 million, which it said it invested into Indigenous ministry programs, after a different compensation formula was negotiated with the Roman Catholic Church.

The Survivors’ Secretariat suggested the Archbishop’s visit be postponed to allow time for proper Indigenous protocols to be developed.

The Office of the Primate responded that the visit would not be included in the agenda and, if a future visit was desired, they would need a direct invitation from Six Nations.

Welby’s visit comes just a few months before Pope Francis is expected to visit Canada in July to advance reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples. 

The pair are scheduled to visit South Sudan just before the Pontiff travels to Canada.

“I will have an opportunity to discuss with him what I learned from this,” Welby said.

Olivia Stefanovich is a senior reporter for CBC’s Parliamentary Bureau based in Ottawa. She previously worked in Toronto, Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. Connect with her on Twitter at @CBCOlivia. Story tips welcome: