“The truth of our common experiences will help set our spirits free and pave the way to reconciliation.” That message greets visitors to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s website (TRC), and it informs the TRC’s mandate to contribute to truth, healing, and reconciliation between Aboriginals and non-Aboriginals surrounding the legacy of the Indian Residential School system.
The era of Indian Residential Schools that began in the 1870s and ended in 1996 is a painful part of Canada’s history. During those years, more than 150,000 Aboriginal children were taken from their families and placed in government-funded, church-run schools where they were forced to learn English and to adopt Christianity and Canadian customs. While some former students had positive experiences, many children suffered abuse, and thousands died.
The Commission was established as part of the settlement reached between legal counsel for former students of the residential schools, legal counsel for the churches that formerly ran the schools, the Assembly of First Nations, other Aboriginal organizations, and the Government of Canada.
Even though the Christian Reformed Church was not one of the denominations that ran residential schools, its members have taken part in TRC events across Canada over the past couple of years—either attending hearings or organizing follow-up events in communities from Truro, Nova Scotia, to Victoria, British Columbia.
But perhaps the denomination’s largest presence was this past week in Edmonton, Alberta, at the seventh and final hearing of the Commission.
CRC folks were among the 9,000 people who showed up on the first day of the four-day event. Organizers anticipated that up to 21,000 people would attend.
Among them was Melle Huizinga. Because of his involvement in reconciliation work with First Nations, Huizinga, a member of Fellowship CRC in Edmonton, was asked to offer an Expression of Reconciliation on behalf of Classis Alberta North. At his side were Martin Mobach and John Ooms, both pastors in that classis.
“We commit ourselves to learning about the unspeakable intergenerational impacts of residential schools and to teach these to the members of our churches,” read Huizinga’s statement, in part. “We commit ourselves to advocate for justice and dignity for the survivors and all people affected. We commit ourselves to speak out against racism, inequality, and systemic oppression against our indigenous sisters and brothers.”
Also in attendance were the entire student body and faculty of The King’s University College. Faculty and students had spent the previous day learning about the history and legacy of Indian Residential Schools.
Afterward, King’s student Lisa Nieuwenhuis reflected, “Although I learned of the tragedy of residential schools in high school, I had never before been faced with a first-hand account from a survivor. The most transformative message I heard was one that was reiterated several times over. Many of the survivors do not want sympathy. . . . Rather, they desire empathy and understanding—for people to not only hear their stories but to really listen to their stories.”
King’s president Melanie Humphreys offered an Expression of Reconciliation on behalf of King’s.
KAIROS, an ecumenical justice organization that includes the CRC, was also represented. Louisa Bruinsma, a member of Edmonton’s Fellowship CRC, offered an Expression of Reconciliation on behalf of the organization. In part, she said: “We are here to say that we are very sorry for this shameful page in the history of our country. We are here to say that we share in that legacy. And it is a shame deepened by the fact that your horrific treatment was often carried out in the name of Christianity. We confess that we have not lived up to the Christian call to do justice.”
KAIROS offered a beautiful quilt made by two CRC members, Evelyn Martin and Irene VanderKloet, as their symbol of reconciliation. Afterward, Bruinsma said, “[This is] a transformational time for our country and for the Christian community in terms of realizing some of the devastating cultural acts we have done historically in the name of Christ, confession of this, and the step to what reconciliation may mean. These hearings were profound.”
The CRC was also represented through the Canadian Council of Churches (CCC), which delivered a formal Expression of Reconciliation on behalf of its 25 member churches. The Expression, prepared by a writing team led by Peter Noteboom, deputy general secretary of CCC and a member of First CRC in Toronto, was delivered by a delegation of five officers of the CCC. In part, the statement read: “In the long history of the relationship of indigenous peoples in Canada with other Canadians, it is painfully clear that we, as Christian communities, have often fallen short of living the love and service of Jesus. . . . We take seriously the challenges of reconciliation, to deepen bonds of friendship and solidarity, to strive to walk together in the present and future, and to consult with you about how we can take that journey together.”
Ben Vandezande, interim director of Canadian Ministries and signatory for the CRC, said he welcomes the 25-denominational member CCC speaking with one voice alongside the individual Expressions of Reconciliation.
“The CCC’s Expression of Reconciliation, coming from a large and diverse body of churches, underlines the need for all churches and all Canadians to embrace the journey of reconciliation and healing with our Indigenous neighbors,” Vandezande said.
All the statements and symbols of reconciliation have been solemnly placed into what is called the Bentwood Box that has traveled with the TRC to all of its seven national events. At the end of the TRC mandate it will be housed in the National Research Centre at the University of Manitoba.
Even as the hearings conclude, the CRC continues to work at reconciliation. The Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue is campaigning for reform in the Aboriginal education system, building on the momentum created by the TRC. It continues to offer the Blanket Exercise, a tool to help participants understand the effects of European settlers on the indigenous people of Canada.
Those who work in and support the CRC’s three urban aboriginal ministries, established many years ago, carry on the work of reconciliation every day.
A Sacred Circle
CRC Members Bear Witness at Truth and Reconciliation Hearing
Reconciliation Matters to Maritime Churches
CRC Members Reflect on Residential Schools
On A Journey Together: Urban Aboriginal Ministries
Connecting with First Nations in British Columbia
About the Authors
A former nurse and chaplain, Janet Greidanus is a freelance news correspondent and long-time writer of the In Memoriam column for The Banner.
Alissa Vernon is the news editor for The Banner.