“I was 6 years old. I recall faintly that it was a cold day, January 6, when my life changed. Some would be allowed to go home for Christmas or Easter, but I was one of the many who couldn’t. As they looked out the window, hoping that their parents would come and get them and they didn’t, they would go back to their rooms and just cry themselves to sleep.”
Those were the words of Chief Wilton Littlechild, commissioner of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), speaking at The King’s University in Edmonton, Alta. His story points to a dark time in Canada’s history when First Nations, Metis, and Inuit children were removed from their families and forced to enroll in boarding schools called Indian Residential Schools. Most were operated by churches or religious orders with support from the federal government. The goal was to “kill the Indian in the child” and assimilate these children into the dominant Canadian culture. Beginning in the 1870s until 1996, when the last one closed, approximately 150,000 children were placed in residential schools. There are approximately 80,000 survivors living across the country. Littlechild spent 14 years of his life in an Indian Residential School.
The TRC was established in 2008 to document the stories of survivors, families, and communities affected by Indian Residential Schools, and to guide Canadians in a process of reconciliation.
The Christian Reformed Church was not involved in Indian Residential Schools. It has supported ministries to Canadian urban aboriginal communities in Winnipeg, Man., Regina, Sask., and Edmonton for over 30 years. So when the TRC visited Edmonton in 2014, many CRC-related individuals and institutions were there to offer expressions of reconciliation and make commitments to work towards healing, including representatives from The King’s University and Classis Alberta North (a regional group of churches).
One of the commitments made by The King’s University was to build a bench and a garden “to be a constant reminder to us of the commitments we have made towards reconciliation.” On September 30, under a cloudless blue sky, a large number of students, faculty, staff, and guests, including Littlechild, gathered outdoors for a service of dedication of that commemorative bench and garden.
The bench, constructed by Brian Martin, King’s professor and member of Edmonton’s Fellowship CRC, is surrounded by fruit-bearing medicine shrubs and trees. University president Melanie Humphreys reminded everyone of the commitments she made on behalf of King’s. “You said then that you looked forward to the day you could sit on that bench,” she said to Littlefield, “and today here you are.”
“Sometimes we sit to relax,” Littlechild responded, “but sometimes we sit to reflect. And this bench will help us to reflect on what happened to the children, and what happened to the parents that were left behind. . . . When we come and sit and relax on this bench, it will challenge us to sit and think about what we’re going to do about this. What are we going to do about all the stories that we heard? Because we need to take those stories and inform (others) about what reconciliation should look like.”
Classis Alberta North also has plans to follow up on its commitments and recommendations of the TRC. An event called “A Moment of Grace: Learning Our Common Story” will take place at each of the 30 Christian Reformed churches in central and northern Alberta.
Classis purchased 17 prints of the series Kisemanito Pakitinasuwin (The Creator’s Sacrifice) by the late Ovide Bighetty, a Cree artist. The original paintings were commissioned by the Indian-Metis Christian Fellowship of Regina, a ministry of the CRC. A committee of classis will seek two speakers and arrange for the transportation and installation of the art in each of the 30 churches in classis on a rotating basis.
A First Nations leader or elder will speak about the impact of the Indian Residential Schools, the work of the TRC, and what the churches can do to maintain and forge respectful relations. The second part of the program will consist of an artist or interpreter talking about the art and how the gospel story is told through indigenous colours, symbols, and traditions. There will be time for follow-up activities. Congregations will be encouraged to invite neighboring congregations of other denominations.
Marlin Schmidt, Member of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta, representing the constituency in which The King’s University is located, was present at the dedication ceremony. “It was an honor to take part in the ceremony and to witness King’s’ students and staff demonstrating how to live in the spirit of reconciliation,” he said. “Our provincial government is committed to taking concrete measures to implement recommendations from the TRC, and we look forward to working with all Albertans as we heal our relationship with our indigenous brothers and sisters.” Alberta CRC churches and The King’s University are definitely on board.