WARNING: This story contains details that some readers may find distressing.
The Anglican Church’s spiritual leader told survivors gathered in Saskatchewan’s First Nation on Saturday that he was sorry the church had allowed “terrible crimes” to take place in residential schools.
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby began his visit to the James Smith Cree Nation, east of Prince Albert, around noon when he met with dignitaries from James Smith’s Indigenous Governments and the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, which represents 74 First Nations in Saskatchewan.
“I want to acknowledge, for myself and my colleagues, the level of pain you are willing to suffer, so that your story is heard,” Welby said.
“I will say that I come in ignorance, needing to hear any and all shame, needing to signify that shame and respect those to whom such terrible injustices have been committed.”
Survivors from all over Saskatchewan shared their stories about how the residential school system destroyed families, raised self-doubt and self-confidence issues, and left them with trauma as a result of sexual and physical abuse. Many spoke about how they didn’t blame the church, but those who act on behalf of the church.
After hearing their stories, Welby apologized.
“The grace you showed in saying that it wasn’t the church that did it – I suppose it’s extraordinary grace. I suppose I mean that’s maybe the only thing I question. That it wasn’t the church that did it. But it was the church It allowed. It allowed. It turned a blind eye to it. And still does, sometimes,” Welby said.
“And for that terrible crime, sin, evil of deliberately deliberately stupidly – because evil is stupid. Build hell and put kids in it. And personal. I’m more sorry than I could ever begin to express…. I’m sorry. I’m more sorry than I could say. I’m ashamed. I’m horrified.
Welby acknowledged that it would not be easy for survivors to speak up at the event, and that sharing their experiences can be painful to share.
He said that understanding the suffering of the survivors would be impossible, but that he hoped to move from “unconscious ignorance” to being deeply aware of their experiences and moving to humility before those gathered.
Survivors like Dennis Sanderson flocked to James Smith to share their stories with the Archbishop.
Sanderson attended Gordon’s Indian Residential School, about 100 kilometers northeast of Regina, for three years before attending All Saints Residential School in Prince Albert. Both were operated by the Anglican Church.
“It’s a good thing for them to come and say ‘I’m sorry’ too, you know? It makes you feel good and I hope it makes our community members feel good,” Sanderson said Saturday morning.
Sanderson said he was able to deal with the trauma that 11 years of residential schooling left him by exploring its culture, its ceremonies and its First Nations way of life.
The Anglican Church made part of its life growing up outside of residential schools; Sanderson said her father was actively involved in the activities of the Anglican Church in the James Smith Cree Nation.
The archbishop offered to continue some actions on Saturday after hearing survivors’ stories about residential schools, the institution’s lasting impacts and the traumas they have had to live with.
“I want to avoid what happens so easily at times like this, which is over-promising and under-delivering,” Welby said.
“I want to promise less and deliver more, if by God’s grace I am given the strength to do so.”
His promise, to those gathered at the gym, was to speak with Archbishop Linda Nicholls, who invited the archbishop to Saskatchewan, about what they can do to address the damage left privately by the doctrine of discovery.
The doctrine of discovery was the framework that colonial countries, England, Spain, Portugal and others, used to justify the claim to land in North America and other continents as their own.
Numerous survivors spoke about how this led to the creation of residential schools and, in turn, the impacts they are dealing with today.
Welby said he also hopes to ensure that the stories of survivors’ suffering in residential schools are heard, in order to prevent such terrible deeds from happening to anyone else at the church’s hands.
Between 1820 and 1969, the Church of England ran about three dozen residential schools in Canada and also ran more than 150 Indian day schools, according to a list compiled for the Indian Federal Daily School collective action.
The Anglican Church apologized for its role in residential schools in 1993 and 2019. It also paid $15.7 million in compensation.
The church was also reimbursed $2.8 million, which it said it had invested in indigenous ministry programs, after a different compensation formula was negotiated with the Roman Catholic Church.
Earlier this week, survivors and advocates questioned the purpose of the visit and whether it will result in meaningful action.
Other Canadian visits planned
Welby, who as archbishop is the religious leader of the Church of England, although not the head of the church – a title that belongs to the British monarch – also plans to travel to Prince Albert on Sunday before heading to Toronto.
His visit coincides with the 50th session of the Provincial Synod, which is being hosted by the Diocese of Saskatchewan in Prince Albert until Sunday. Delegates from Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba, as well as the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, will be in attendance.
At 2pm on Sunday, Welby will meet with Anglican and non-Anglican Indigenous leaders.
Support is available to anyone affected by the lingering effects of residential school and those who are triggered by the latest reports. A National Indiana Residential School Crisis Line has been established to provide support to residential school survivors and others affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis hotline: 1-866-925-4419.