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All nations before God’s throne

The role of the church in reconciliation

A spirit of hopeful anticipation filled the room when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) released its final report in June. Reconciliation, the report said, is everyone’s business; this is reflected in the 94 calls for action by a wide range of actors in all aspects of Canadian life. Churches, both those that ran residential schools and those that did not, are called to play an active role as agents of reconciliation between indigenous and settler peoples in Canada.

Asking the Pope to apologize for the role of the Roman Catholic Church in residential schools drew media attention to the role of the church in the TRC’s plan for reconciliation. While higher in profile, the papal request may be easier to fulfill than some of the others, which call for change in deeply entrenched attitudes and practices. The summary report and calls to action are now being studied by Canadian churches, with the expectation that official response and follow-up action will take place this fall. The TRC assigned a deadline of March 31, 2016 to one item (discussed on the next page), ensuring that responses or lack of responses will be noticed at that time.

The TRC’s recommendations for churches can be grouped under three themes: learn from history; respect indigenous culture, and work for justice for indigenous peoples. Most people will agree that these are essential elements on the path to reconciliation.   

Learn from history

First, the report asks churches to educate every congregation and every new church leader about the history of residential schools, the church’s role and the impacts on indigenous people. This will regularly remind church members of a chapter in church history that all churches would rather forget. Similarly, all schools, including faith-based schools, are asked to update their history courses to teach Canadian history more accurately, including stories from the perspective of indigenous peoples. The materials gathered by the TRC provide rich resources for learning Canada’s history, including the darker side currently omitted from most textbooks.

Understanding what happened in the past expands our ability to understand the situation of indigenous people today, which is why the TRC report has such a strong focus on education. The hope is that we will learn from history, change current unjust practices and prevent anything similar in the future.

Respect Indigenous culture

The TRC has, secondly, asked churches to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, a religious teaching dating back to 1452 that was used to justify Europeans taking control of indigenous lands. It was based on the premise that Christianity and European culture were superior, while the “primitive” nature of indigenous “savages” made them unfit for controlling land and developing civilization. The Christian Reformed Church will consider a report on the Doctrine of Discovery at Synod 2016; it will be available for discussion in churches this fall. Other denominations, such as Anglican, have already taken this step. While it is fairly easy to say this doctrine was in error, the challenge lies in redressing the harm it caused.

One way for churches to do that, says the TRC, is to respect and support the right of indigenous people to “manifest, practice, develop and teach their spiritual and religious traditions, customs and ceremonies” (48.ii, p. 5). In the past, indigenous religious practices were often banned, regarded as heathen or dismissed as culturally backward.

A related recommendation asks provinces that fund faith-based schools to require a comparative religions course that includes teaching about indigenous spiritual beliefs and practices, to be developed in conjunction with indigenous elders.

Showing respect for religious practices with which one may disagree can be challenging for Christians who are eager to proclaim the gospel, but doing so fosters more receptivity than condemning other practices does. In schools where passing on religious beliefs from parents to children is a central purpose, this can be particularly challenging.

Religious and cultural practices are always intertwined. The TRC serves us by opening our eyes to see to how European cultural attitudes were mixed with the gospel to harm others. Through respectful and appreciative dialogue, including respectful disagreement, we may find new pathways to practice the unity of the gospel and the richness of cultural diversity, launched at Pentecost and celebrated in Revelations 7. 

Work for just relations

A major TRC request is for churches, as well as governments, to implement the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as a framework for what just relations might look like in Canada. Thirteen of the 94 recommendations refer to the Declaration, reflecting its importance for our indigenous neighbors. Churches are asked to show how they will implement the Declaration by March 31, 2016.

At this point, Canada has officially endorsed the Declaration but has not moved to implement it in Canada. Most members of churches in Canada know little about it or the other human rights covenants that, together, provide a helpful framework for a rights-respecting culture. Even if one can assume agreement with the general principles in the Declaration, translating them into practical actions will be a challenge.

Progress on almost all indigenous issues, including the Declaration, has stalled because of a power struggle between the federal government and indigenous leaders. Active leadership by the churches on implementation of the Declaration might help to break the deadlock and at least move forward on urgent issues, such as education for indigenous children and child welfare. Taking feasible steps forward and avoiding steps backward, called progressive realization, is an accepted way to implement covenants like the Declaration. Making progress in some areas, along with a process to clarify more complex provisions is more productive than the current stalling over the meaning of a few phrases in the document.

A big task

If Christians take the recommendations of the TRC seriously, we have some significant questions to honestly and fully discuss. It will mean some significant changes in attitudes, policies and practices within churches. And I know, without a doubt, that our country will benefit from robust engagement by church members in the public arena to achieve the reconciliation that all sides genuinely desire.


  • Kathy Vandergrift, a public policy analyst, brings experience in government, social justice work and a Master’s Degree in Public Ethics to her reflections.

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