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Churches fulfill one of the TRC’s calls to action

“Christians in Canada, in the name of their religion, inflicted serious harms on Aboriginal children, their families and communities . . . in fundamental contradiction to what they purported to be their core beliefs,” last year’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) stated baldly, speaking of the Indian residential school system. The Christian Reformed church (CRC) in Canada “was established in this context and is complicit in these sins,” a recent denominational response laments. It’s time to restore those broken relationships.

Along with 13 other churches and parachurch organizations, the CRC publically endorsed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights on Indigenous Peoples on March 31, 2016, as the TRC had requested. That Call to Action came as a surprise to many observers, including TRC church relations advisor Lori Ransom. She knew that the churches would be asked to support the UN Declaration, but comments, “I hadn’t heard about the March 31 deadline ahead of time, but I thought – great!”

Churches and parachurch organizations did meet the ambitious deadline and in so doing committed to respecting the rights of Indigenous peoples as outlined in a human rights document developed through years of negotiations with Indigenous people around the world. Mike Hogeterp, director of the CRC’s Centre for Public Dialogue, says that he was “inspired and moved that the churches were able to do this in time.”

Lori Ransom is a member of the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan First Nation in eastern Ontario and worked with the TRC to help connect churches to the Commission’s work of hearing the testimonies of residential school survivors and offering recommendations to the Canadian government and citizens for reconciliation. During that time, she connected often with the various ministries of the CRC that work with Indigenous peoples, including the Centre for Public Dialogue and the Canadian Aboriginal Ministry Committee.

A new standard
What’s the significance of this Declaration? “I think it’s huge,” says Ransom. “People from around the world for a quarter century have seen this as critically important for acknowledging Indigenous peoples. . . . Indigenous contributions have been devalued around the world. It’s harder to hear minority voices – this Declaration helps Indigenous voices to be heard.”

Shannon Perez, Justice and Reconciliation Mobilizer for the CRC and one of the writers of the CRC’s statement, adds that the Declaration is more than fine-sounding words. “This isn’t, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if, . . .’ and then we move on to something else. It’s a commitment. It’s a standard to hold ourselves to, not an empty signature.”

Ransom agrees. “It’s only going to translate into real-world action if people take it seriously and keep it before them as they’re making decisions.” People sometimes ask what Indigenous people want, she says. Though there is a huge diversity of nations and perspectives among Indigenous peoples in Canada, she says that the Declaration is part of the answer to that question. “This is where Indigenous communities are coming from. This is what they’re talking about when they say they want respect.”

As part of the CRC statement, the denomination committed to begin a process of learning and dialogue about the Declaration, to continue to discern how it affects the way the denomination does ministry and social justice, and to engage in education and advocacy efforts to honour Indigenous self-determination, diversity and rights. Perez, a member of the Sayisi Dene First Nation, hopes that this Declaration will help Canadian Christians come to recognize the value that Indigenous cultures bring to the Body of Christ.

Next steps
Mike Hogeterp sees the Declaration as vitally connected to the work of the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (DoCD) taskforce, which is due to report to Synod this June. The DoCD is a series of papal declarations from the 15th Century which gave European rulers official church sanction to claim a right of discovery over lands not held by Europeans and Christians. Hogeterp chairs the taskforce. “The DoCD assumed the superiority of European understandings of theology, land, etc.,” he says. “The Declaration is a way of saying that approach of Euro-superiority was wrong and that Indigenous voices and cultures are important.” In the words of Grand Chief Edward John of the Tl’azt’en Nations, “The Declaration calls for the development of new relationships based on recognition and respect for the inherent rights of Indigenous peoples.”

Lori Ransom sees hopeful signs of these new relationships. As part of her position with the department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, she watches for news stories about Indigenous concerns and has noticed some signs of positive change, including a recent news story about the city of Regina’s consideration of a motion on reconciliation. “I don’t think that would have happened before the TRC’s Calls to Action.”

“Reconciliation takes effort and commitment. It can be costly,” says Hogeterp. “But we’re moving into a much healthier space where the dignity and humanity of all people is respected in the way we organize as churches and politically. The next steps are education and dialogue on the Declaration.”

Perez has a challenge for all of us. “Make it personal,” she says. “What does this mean for my church, for me?”

Full documents
The DoCD report is available online at crcna.org/ministries/initiatives/doctrine-discovery-task-force.
Statements from various churches are collected online at kairoscanada.org/what-we-do/indigenous-rights/churches-response-call-action-48


  • Danielle Steenwyk-Rowaan

    Danielle Steenwyk-Rowaan is a Host Connector with Open Homes Hamilton, a Christian ministry that supports refugee claimants by offering home-based hospitality in Hamilton, Ontario.

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