Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby recently met with Indigenous community leaders and residential school survivors in Toronto to work towards true reconciliation after he issued an apology for the Anglican Church’s role in residential schools.
“Why did it take so long for the churches and the government to apologize? Don’t they know the schools closed in 1970?” asked residential school survivor Geronimo Henry. “That’s when they should have come and called us all together and said they were sorry. But they never did.”
Henry spent 11 years at the Mohawk Institute boarding school near Brantford, Ontario. He was at the meeting with Welby on May 3, hoping for more than cheap words, according to the Anglican Journal.
To the crowd that gathered, Henry recounted his time at school. He shared the times he was locked in a ‘playroom’ with a window for hours, digging in the landfill behind the school for extra food and wanting his mother to come and take him home.
The Mohawk Institute closed in 1970 in Brantford, but it took Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government in 2008 to officially apologize.
“The Church of England and the Anglican Church of Canada, year after year, have had the choice to say ‘this is not what should happen.’ And I don’t understand why they didn’t. [The church] deliberately in collusion, accompanied … —[and] called on the name of God to support the most terrible evil,” said Henry.
The Archbishop’s response
Welby’s tour marks the first time an Archbishop of Canterbury has officially apologized for the Church of England’s role in the boarding school system. He spent time with Indigenous leaders and survivors in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. May, the 1st.
In his speech to the James Smith Cree Nation, Welby was candid about the role of the Anglican Church in schools.
“The difference about this piece of hell is that it was built by the church and in the name of the church. For this terrible crime, the sin, the evil of deliberately, consciously, stupidly – because the evil is stupid – building hell and putting kids in and staffing it, I’m more sorry than I could ever, ever begin to express. That is, both personally and in my role as Archbishop of Canterbury.
Welby went on to address the fact that, in the past, too many leaders have over-promised and under-delivered. He hopes to under-promise and over-deliver.
“I want to see results first. Words are cheap,” says Henry.
Welby offered Henry a token of faith that action would be taken. Welby gave him a handmade stained glass paperweight and said that if he didn’t take real steps towards reconciliation in the next four years, Henry would have to use the paperweight to smash his window.
According to the Anglican Journal, a concrete promise Welby made was to release all residential school records in the possession of the church to survivors and to lobby for the New England Company, the corporation that originally ran the Mohawk Institute, do the same.
Meeting survivors with Jesus
Dawn Hill was also at the meeting in Toronto with Welby. She is a member of the Survivor Secretariat and a survivor of the Mohawk Institute and recalled an encounter while she was there.
“We lived in an environment of indifferent individuals,” says Hill. “Often [there was] physical abuse from staff, sometimes also from other children because no one was watching us.”
After falling asleep on a bench one afternoon, Hill shared a dream that changed her.
“When I fell asleep, I had the most vivid dream of Jesus. He was standing on top of the building where the dining room is. He looked at me and told me that he would always watch over me…I felt this physical surge—it all started at my feet—of peace, love, and kindness.I had the most overwhelming experience I’ve ever had in my life.
Hill encouraged Welby on behalf of the Anglican Church as well as the Catholic Church to restore the language that was stripped from many Indigenous children who survived residential schools.
“You have all this money; what do you actually do for people? …I don’t think I need help right now. But I certainly think the restoration of the language would be really important.