Vancouver Church service leads confession for role of Christians in residential schools nightmare

By Bethany Lindsay
May 31, 2015

Members of the congregation pray during an ecumenical service Sunday at St. Andrew’s-Wesley United Church in Vancouver.

Confession is a tradition normally associated with Catholicism, but Christians from across the faith came together Sunday in Vancouver to confess to centuries of harm committed against Canada’s aboriginal population.

“We confess the smallness of our hearts which only have room for so few of God’s beloved children. We confess the damage we have caused to the First Nations of this land, which continues to destroy lives today,” reads a line in a prayer of confession led by Presbyterian, Anglican and United Church clergy in a multi-faith service at St. Andrew’s-Wesley United Church.

“God have mercy on us. Create new hearts within us,” the congregation of hundreds responded.

The service was part of a daylong event anticipating release of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee’s final report, set for Tuesday, after six years of research into Canada’s residential schools.

The participating clergy acknowledged the role of the Christian religion in forcing about 150,000 aboriginal children to attend church-run schools, where they were made to forgo their native languages and traditions, and were often physically and sexually abused.

“God weeps at love withheld, at strength misused, at children’s innocence abused, and till we change the way we love, God weeps,” the congregation sang at one point.

Children from the participating churches were gathered in front of the choir as youth ministers explained Canada’s history of colonization, the horror of residential schools and the poor conditions that remain on many First Nations reserves.

Sunday’s service came “at a moment when our country is turning its mind toward a very dark chapter in our lives,” guest speaker Douglas White told those assembled.

His mother was taken from her family and sent to live at the Alberni Indian Residential School, the Nanaimo lawyer and former Snuneymuxw chief said.

“She shared with me issues of hunger, and her complicated relationship with food to this day,” White said.

She was separated from her brother, and told not to acknowledge her relationship with him at school. The pair stole glances in the yard whenever they could.

“These experiences were aimed at breaking down families,” White said.

He stressed that the damage inflicted by residential schools isn’t merely historic, but rather a tragedy that remains “terribly relevant” today, less than 20 years after the last school closed its doors in 1996.

To begin repairing relations between First Nations and non-aboriginal people will require action from politicians, the courts, and most importantly from regular Canadians, he said.

“I know that I don’t want my children and grandchildren to be merely tolerated by others. That is not enough,” White said. “I want my children and grandchildren to be loved.”

There were a few aboriginal faces apparent among the worshippers. Max Stelmacker sat in the back with his mother Pearl, another survivor of the Alberni Indian Residential School.

After the service, at a fair held in the courtyard of the Wall Centre, Stelmacker said he was feeling a little let down by the day’s events.

“I feel as if it’s very much something put together by the non-aboriginal community to sort of exonerate themselves and put themselves first,” he said.

“What I hear back from the native people is that there’s still a lot of healing to be done.”

He’s holding on to a glimmer of hope that something big will be done this week to mark the release of the commission’s report, making it feel like a “momentous occasion.”

He’d like to see Prime Minister Stephen Harper act as a true statesman and speak to Canadians about how important it is to make up for past and present transgressions against aboriginal people.

Stelmacker only learned about his mother’s residential school experience in 2007, when she was interviewed by a newspaper reporter. Her revelations brought him to tears.

“Personally, I can’t imagine what it would be like to have a whole town voided of the voices of children,” he said.

The Stelmackers stayed to watch a blanket exercise symbolizing the systematic loss of aboriginal land, lives and culture. The day’s events ended with an ecumenical prayer at First Baptist Church.


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